Ivan Cleary tells a story about his son Nathan that sums up why people like Greg Alexander are labelling the Penrith No.7 as the game’s greatest general-play kicker of all time.
“You know when aunties and uncles ask what they should get kids for their birthday?” Ivan Cleary says.
“When Nat was a kid, all I would say is ‘just get him a ball’. Kicking a ball is all he has known. From the time he could walk, he’s been kicking footballs. And he’s still doing it. It’s rep, after rep, after rep until he’s worked out which ones to use, when and how.”
The NSW halfback, who is in a shootout with Manly’s Tom Trbojevic for the mantle of the best player in the game, possesses a repertoire of kicks set to give rookie South Sydney fullback Blake Taaffe nightmares on Saturday.
Cleary terrorised former teammate Josh Mansour the last time the Panthers faced the Rabbitohs in round 23, with an evolution of the floating bomb that has got some of the game’s greatest kickers talking.
Cooper Cronk was one of the best exponents of the modern-day kick, but the former Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters halfback said there was a notable difference between what he used to produce and what Cleary is doing.
“I never had the power to hit a torpie [torpedo],” Cronk recently said on the Matty Johns Podcast.
“If you can get a torpie to turn over on its head, then that’s when trouble happens. I never had the ability, so I had to find another way around it. Cleary is doing it better. I had to turn the ball on its belly, hit it flat and, parallel to the ground, hit it with a real stiff foot.
“If you hit it flush on the belly, it doesn’t move. Nathan is holding it straight, which gives it more boot leverage or space on the ball. He’s getting distance out of it. I could never get distance out of it. He’s kicking it 55 metres and it’s humming in the air, causing all sorts of trouble. [With those kicks], a lot of them go left or right, you can spray them quite easily. I haven’t seen Cleary miss a couple. He gets them nine out of 10.”
When Cleary burst onto the scene, he spent a lot of time working on his craft alongside Alexander after Penrith training.
Alexander no longer works with Cleary but believes the Penrith No.7 has developed into the most well-rounded, general-play kicker the game has seen – putting him ahead of Andrew Johns and Cronk.
“Each kicker seems to have their niche – I think Nat’s all-round kicking game is the best because it’s not just limited to one thing like the high floating bombs,” Alexander told the Herald.
“He’s got spiral bombs, the bombs from halfway that allow the chasers to arrive not long after the ball does. His short kicking game is exceptional too. It’ll be hard to get better than him. He and [Daly] Cherry-Evans have great timing on their kicks, knowing when to kick and help their teams in a game.
Nathan Cleary lines up a high kick.Credit:Getty
“It looks like he has a variation of them, too … If you don’t hit it flat on the belly, sometimes it turns into a spiral bomb. He’s got a huge kick on him. He’s a strong boy. He’s tall and has a long lever for a kicker. He has enormous power on it; even his kicks from halfway. Mitchell Moses has a deep high kick, too.”
Cleary’s kicking statistics, which currently includes the feat of going through the entire season without a ball being caught on the full in the in-goal, back Alexander’s claims.
He also sits fourth when it comes to putting up attacking kicks that aren’t defused by the opposition.
Within the first 22 rounds of the year, Cleary produced 54 kicks that weren’t defused by the opposition. He played in just 16 of those games. Parramatta’s Moses sits atop the list with 65 (19 games), followed by Luke Brooks (60 in 22 games) and Cherry-Evans (57 in 21 games).
“The floater or torpedo, basically anything that’s not the traditional end-over-end [kick], people don’t do it because it’s not as accurate,” Cleary said.
“You might get a coach or a player himself who aren’t confident they can kick it into the right spot.
“That’s why most people just go for the end-over-end one for a field-position thing. I would say Nat is at the higher end of being able to produce those kicks but also get them in the right spot.”
Catching a torpedo bomb or a floating bomb can be a nightmare, based on the physics of ball flight.
A bomb that topples end-over-end is considered easy to catch, given its flight through the air will be predictable. Its trajectory can be tracked early and defused.
The other varieties Cleary uses are anything but predictable. The torpedo bomb slices through the air while spiralling up. On its downward path, the ball flight can change significantly. A catcher can be under the ball only to find it suddenly veers away at the last second.
The floating bomb is the same as the torpedo – but with an even crazier ball flight. It is kicked to not spin at all while in the air, and the ball can move metres away from an expected landing spot. Catching it can be a lottery. As one rival player told the Herald: “If you set your feet, you’re dead.”
There was a time when Cleary struggled for accuracy, but a lot has changed since he spoke about the floating bombs in the early rounds of 2017.
“It’s hard to perfect, and I still haven’t,” Cleary said four years ago. “They come off the boot all right, but there will be days where I have a few shockers and they might go out on the full.”
The Penrith halfback has given away only five seven-tackle sets this year, which speaks to the accuracy of his kicking.
“The kick into the posts against the Tigers a couple of weeks ago shows how much practice he does,” Alexander said.
“No one is confident of hitting the post from outside 15 metres away unless you’ve done it 1000 times. He has always been the last guy off the field after training.”
On his podcast, Matthew Johns admitted Cleary had mastered the floating bomb, which he refers to as the dead-ball bomb.
“I never thought I’d see a kick that’s harder to handle than a torpedo,” Johns said. “Then I saw [Cooper] do them, and Nathan has mastered it.”
South Sydney’s Taaffe has been named at fullback, but Penrith are bracing for the prospect of a late reshuffle that could push either Alex Johnston or Cody Walker into the No.1 role.
Either way, they expect an aerial barrage from Cleary.
“I think it is just the way the game goes,” Cleary said. “Whoever is at the back there, I would like to test them out. It is something to keep an eye on positionally, and I’ll try and put them under a bit of pressure.
“I am not sure what they are doing and I am not looking into it too much. They could put a number of players at fullback but our focus is getting ourselves right. Our main focus is doing what we want to. We will test out the fullback, no matter who it is.”
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