Royce Simmons is up front with his bias but the former Penrith skipper has backed Nathan Cleary to snatch the Australia jersey from Daly Cherry-Evans for this year’s Rugby League World Cup.
On Wednesday the 1991 premiership-winning captain said his modern-day counterpart is the best halfback in the competition and should get the Kangaroos’ job at the end of the year.
The 23-year-old NSW halfback already has the leg up on his Queensland rival after Penrith thumped Manly 46-6 last Thursday, with the two set to go head to head again next month.
The Manly skipper is the incumbent halfback after Australia’s last outing, a shock 16-12 loss to Tonga at the end of 2019.
While Cherry-Evans and the Sea Eagles are struggling without a win for the season, the Panthers are at the opposite end of the spectrum after winning their first four rounds of the season.
From their past 22 games, the only game the Panthers have lost is the NRL grand final against Melbourne and for former Kangaroo Simmons, that form is unbeatable for an Australia jersey.
“I’m probably biased, but I’ll put my hand up and say he’s the best (Australian halfback),” Simmons said on Wednesday.
“Last year to get them to 17 wins in a row, you just don’t do that unless your man at the top steering you around the park is on his game every week.
“His consistency factor is really good.
“He knows his ball playing and running game … he does both.
“The best part of his game that never gets mentioned is his defence.
“The backrowers that run at him, he knocks them down.
“You don’t have to hide him or put him outside the centre or any of that. He’s a brilliant young man as well.”
Organisers are pushing ahead with the RLWC which is set to be staged in England from the end of October.
A COVID-19 interrupted rugby league schedule last year prevented Cleary from claiming the No.7 Green and Gold jersey, although he lost the Origin series to Cherry-Evans’ Queensland side in November.
On Friday he’ll get another chance to stamp his claim on the Kangaroos job when he goes up against English halfback George Williams in Penrith’s clash with Canberra.
Williams furthered Simmons’ call, saying Cleary is the in-form player of the competition.
“Nathan Cleary is probably the best player in the league at the moment and we’ll have to nullify him as best we can if we’re any chance of winning,” Williams said.
“I’ve got respect for him as a player but I won’t be giving him too much on Friday night.”
As far as the Kangaroos jersey goes at the end of the season, Cleary said he’s keeping his head clear of distractions but if it comes to him it would be a dream come true.
“I’m just trying to play well each week and try to be consistent but if that honour did come it’d be pretty awesome and a dream come true,” he said.