Nathan Cleary's starring role in an 11th-hour State of Origin audition has him poised to retain the NSW halfback role when Brad Fittler names his game one team on Sunday night.
Despite declaring he was unsure if he had done enough to feature at Suncorp Stadium for the series opener, the Herald understands Cleary's best display of the season in Penrith's turgid 16-10 win over the Eels on Thursday night has put his nose in front for the No.7.
It's expected he has done just enough to stave off the challenge of South Sydney's Adam Reynolds despite the Panthers limping through the first 11 rounds of the season with just three wins.
Cleary was spotted in conversation with Fittler before steering Penrith to a much-needed win at Bankwest Stadium, which snapped his side's six-game losing run.
"Everyone has blown it out of proportion, as they would," Cleary joked. "I [also] saw him after the game and he was supportive, as he always is."
Fittler said he hadn't put a line through his halfback's name before the clash, and he certainly wouldn't have done so on what he saw in Sydney's west as Cleary was head and shoulders above most in a gutter war.
Afterwards, Fittler was also deep in conversation with Penrith coach Ivan Cleary and James Maloney. Maloney, who was suspended for the match, left the sheds laughing as he refuses to give up on his own chance of staying in the sky blue.
But his junior halves partner is the one who is firming for selection despite his indifferent form, which father Ivan conceded is below a number of other NSW playmakers.
"If I get picked I will be absolutely stoked," Cleary jnr said. "It's a massive honour to pull on the Blues jersey. [But] I can't put all my eggs in one basket. My No.1 job is here at Penrith at the moment trying to turn our season around. It starts [on Thursday night].
"I haven't been in the best form to start the season. That's just fact. We'll see what happens over the weekend."
Maloney was talking like a man who refuses to wave the white flag, despite missing the win over the Eels through suspension and his club languishing near the bottom of the ladder. He has experience others don't.
"If you went on this year's form with a side that is 2-8, I don't think one game on the weekend was going to make a whole lot of difference," he said.
"There are some guys playing some good footy, but the thing I've got over them is I've been there and done it before. It's basically up to Freddy. He'll pick a side that he thinks has got the best chance. I was in there last year with him and he knows what I can do. Hopefully I'm in it."
If Cleary is picked ahead of Reynolds for the Origin series opener at Suncorp Stadium on June 5, it will be a relentless build-up for a young man who has been through plenty already this season. There will be questions about Fittler's loyalty, Cleary's form, the 50,000 parochial Queenslanders.
Is it that easy to turn it around in the Origin arena?
Asked if the scrutiny surrounding his dad's return to Penrith had been even harder than he anticipated, Cleary said: "No, not really. I always thought it was going to be a tough time.
"I definitely didn't think we would start the season the way we did and that's probably as tough as it gets. It's just been constant bagging coming from everywhere. I'll live with that. That's what the life of a footballer is like.
"It's obviously tough when people are constantly talking about you every week and constant criticism. We've stuck together as a family and we've stuck together as a team. That's what Penrith's all about.
"I think if [the sex-tapes scandal] happened to any club [it would be hard]. It was such a shock as well. You never want to see that happen to our club. It was one of those things we had to get past. I think at the time we were trying to brush it off too much.
"There has been a lot of outside noise and it's tough at times – I've probably taken it to heart too much – I'm just really trying to block it out."