Sports

Eleven months out and the NSW halfback race is already a Blue beauty

Triumphant NSW No.7 Mitchell Pearce made a point of hauling Nathan Cleary on to the stage to celebrate after Origin III and quickly declared his hopes of one day playing along the 21-year-old.

In a lovely gesture and a sign of his maturity, Pearce wanted to acknowledge Cleary's work in the opening two Origins before an ankle injury paved the way for his own representative return.

Once the celebrations end, Blues coach Brad Fittler knows the biggest talking point leading up to next year's series will be who wears the No.7.

Even 11 months out from the next clash with Queensland, the halfback race already looks like shaping up as one of the hottest in years with Pearce and Cleary right in the mix. Luke Keary, who is a big chance to wear the No.7 for the Sydney Roosters next year, is another leading contender, along with James Maloney, provided he has not left for the Super League.

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An elated Wayne Pearce kick-started the debate when he told the Herald: "I think [Pearce and Cleary] are both really good players and would even complement each other.''

Pearce junior went out of his way to praise Cleary, who remains a chance to play for Penrith on Friday night after he received a cortisone injection in his problematic right ankle.

We did it: NSW coach Brad Fittler congratulates his halfback Mitchell Pearce after game three.

We did it: NSW coach Brad Fittler congratulates his halfback Mitchell Pearce after game three.Credit:AAP

"My first thoughts were about Nathan, it wasnt just about me. It would be great to play with him one day, hes a tough kid,'' Pearce said.

"He did all the hard work, I cant stress that enough. Im the lucky one at the end just to finish it off.

"Hes done more work in this series than I have, Im just lucky I get to finish it off.''

Pearce, 30, admitted to feelings of guilt in previous Origin campaigns ''where I haven't finished the job off''.

"You feel guilt when you lose. You let people down. But tonight, walking that lap of honour, I enjoyed the moment. It felt good,'' Pearce said.

"It just felt good I did my job for the team.''

Cleary was elated that the Blues had gone back-to-back but naturally disappointed injury kept him out of the decider.

"I was probably a bit jealous as anyone would be, but I was so pumped we got the win and for Pearcey to come in and get that Origin win, I'm so pumped for him,'' Cleary said.

"It's a credit to him to have the confidence, despite all the things that have gone on with him [in the past], to throw that perfect pass and pretty much win us a game was pretty special.

"Pearcey said to me I'd played the first two games and was a big part of it, but I said I was so pumped for him and I don't reckon anybody deserved it more. He's been a massive part of NSW the past 10 years and although it wasn't successful, it's a credit to him to come back and fight off the demons and play a game like that and get a win.''

Cleary was aware of the intense interest in the halfback debate and said: &quRead More – Source