Blues audition night for Cleary, Maloney
IT shapes as the most important State of Origin audition in more than a decade.
Thursday night at Penrith, two legendary Panthers halves will determine whether the current Panthers six and seven should be paired together for New South Wales.
For all the glory Brad Fittler and Greg Alexander experienced at Panthers Stadium during their triumphant era of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Thursday night their appraisal of five-eighth James Maloney and halfback Nathan Cleary against Wests Tigers will take on greater significance for a state desperate to end Queensland's 12-year dominance.
Cleary will return two weeks early from a knee injury this evening to boost the high-flying Penrith, as well as his State of Origin chances.
He will have two weeks to impress NSW coach Fittler and Blues adviser Alexander.
Fittler played 119 first grade matches for Penrith between 1989 and 1995 while Alexander represented the Panthers 228 times over two stints spanning 14 years.
Thursday night they focus on how Cleary and Maloney combine.
Fittler and Alexander are expected to be among the healthy crowd watching this evening's match, where strong performances from Cleary and Maloney will further push their already robust case for selection.
"Both are absolutely in our discussions," Alexander said. "Nathan has been out for seven weeks - it has been the biggest injury of his career so far.
"But he has looked good at training this week and the knee feels good. He will be confident on it.
"Jimmy has been great this season for Penrith. I don't think Penrith would be where they are on the competition table - after losing Nathan for such a long period - without Jimmy.
"James has done a terrific job getting the side around the field and controlling the footy."
Cleary will come up against another hot NSW contender, Tigers halfback Luke Brooks.
Brooks looks in total control of his game this year in a Tigers team that has shocked the NRL
Another Penrith champion, Mark Geyer, added: "Freddie and Brandy stuck together when they were on the field so it's no coincidence they are sticking together now to watch Penrith's two contenders in the halves."
"Maloney would be my first back picked if I'm a selector. I would reserve my opinion on Cleary until I have seen him play again.
"Brandy and Freddie both have great footy brains. Brandy is articulate and subdued, doesn't say that much, where Freddie wears his heart on his sleeve. I think they need a bit of both.
"They are kind of the odd couple of the NSW coaching staff this year. That's why it will work."
Maloney will mark up against Tigers five-eighth Benji Marshall.
That contest alone should be absorbing and exciting. Brooks and Marshall have been in stellar form this season.
Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary is bemused his son will return early to play against his father's side.
"I can't believe he is coming back this week, the irony is unbelievable," Ivan told Fox Sports.