Manchester: Nathan Cleary has declared he is “just scratching the surface” after the Kangaroos halfback silenced his critics in the World Cup final.
Cleary’s performances at the tournament were heavily scrutinised – which teammate Latrell Mitchell put down to tally poppy syndrome – but the point guard saved his best for last.
Cleary, 25, dominated Samoa at Old Trafford on Sunday AEDT has now won the World Cup and the past two NRL premierships.
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“Everyone gives him a bit of stick. When you’re at the top of the game and winning, everyone wants to see you fall – I’ve been there,” Mitchell said.
“It’s all credit to Nathan the way he’s conducted himself and I’m very proud of him and the way the year has turned out for him.
“Winning back-to-back competitions is a hard thing to do, I’ve been there and done it, then to be able to (win the World Cup) with the boys is something very special.”
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga also went into bat for Cleary, blasting the commentary around his form as “ridiculous”.
“I thought he was excellent. Not many people expected it, except us,” a fired-up Meninga said after the final.
“It’s been ridiculous to be honest with you the banter that’s been going on, but we had belief in our team and what we’re doing and he was exceptional.”
Australia captain James Tedesco also took a starting shot at Cleary’s critics following the final.
“Everyone at the start of the tournament was calling him the best player, but by the end of it people are bagging him,” Tedesco said.
“So I don’t really understand some of the comments that come at Nathan but he’s one of the best players in the world and he showed it tonight.”
The man at the center of the debate said the final was the most comfortable he’s felt in a Kangaroos jersey.
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“I just felt I had the best week of preparation and I knew I had to play well and link the team together if we wanted to win,” Cleary said.
“We probably played the best game of our tournament too.
“Mal has always instilled the confidence in me that I could do the job and I’m very grateful for that and glad I could try to help repay the favor tonight.
“I’m 25 and there’s a long way to go, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface so very grateful for what’s happened so far, it’s not every day you get to win a World Cup at Old Trafford.”
Clearly was told of Mitchell’s comments and responded that the squad was full of players who have overcome adversity.
“I don’t really take too much notice of the outside noise, it’s always going to be there,” Cleary said.
“There’s always going to be question marks on whether you’re doing the right thing or whether you’re good enough.
“That’s been a cool thing about this group, a lot of people have been through that so we come together and know what’s inside the group and know what we need to do for each other to get results.
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“It’s just about trying to be better every day, it’s not focusing too much on what other people are saying, it’s putting your best foot forward for the team.”
Clearly faced his Panthers halves partner Jarome Luai in the final for the first time since they were teenagers.
The pair vowed to park their friendship for the clash and they squared off during Samoa’s pre-game war dance.
“Romey was right in my face and it was honestly a really cool experience,” Cleary said.
“(In the game) it was pretty cool just seeing how good they are and trying to defend them, it was a great experience.”
Luai also heaped praise on his friend and teammate of almost 10 years.
“It was awesome (playing him), I got up in his face there in the (war dance) but then we just wished each other luck,” Luai said.
“He’s the best of the best. I’m constantly wanting to test myself and there was no better way than doing it against one of my boys.”