Rich 100: Cleary topples NRL’s biggest earner
Manly's Daly Cherry Evans topped the Rich 100 list but NSW Blues coach Brad Fittler believes Penrith's Nathan Cleary has the edge over the veteran playmaker as the NRL's best halfback.
Both No.7s are in fine touch but Saturday's blockbuster clash between the Sea Eagles and the league-leading Panthers shapes as a chance for either Cherry-Evans or Cleary to officially claim the mantle as the best playmaker in the NRL.
Fittler, who was part of Penrith's maiden 1991 premiership win, believes the matter has already been settled.
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Fittler said Cleary produced the best kicking game of the year in the Panthers' 22-14 win over the Gold Coast Titans last weekend.
"At the moment Nathan is on top," Fittler said.
"Cherry Evans was outstanding against Parramatta in round 10 but Penrith are the ladder leaders. His kicking on the weekend in the wet has been the best kicking game of the season from anyone, I thought it was outstanding.
"That's been the wettest game this year and you have to adapt and he adapted as good as anyone and the week before against the Cowboys he showed he's the best with his defence."
While Cleary is the best halfback in the NRL, according to Fittler, the numbers reveal Cherry-Evans is the richest.
The Sea Eagles skipper's lifetime deal with the northern beaches club is netting $1.25 million a season.
Greg Alexander, who captained the Panthers in their 1991 title victory wearing the No.7 jumper, believes the consistency shown from Cherry Evans, 31, since his 2011 debut makes him worth every cent of the rich deal.
"We had the list of wages published over the weekend, he's worth what he is earning. He plays like a player who earns that much money and he does it consistently," Alexander said.
"I remember when he did sign with the Gold Coast in 2015 and there was debate at Manly about who you keep between him and Kieran Foran … I just think Manly have to spend whatever is required to keep Cherry Evans at the club."
At just 22 yet coming in at No.6 on the Rich 100, Cleary is enjoying the kind of form that has guided the Panthers to the top of the NRL ladder after 11 rounds.
Cleary's detractors questioned his ability to take ownership of the team in the absence of five-eighth and 247-game veteran James Maloney in season 2020.
But Alexander is not surprised at the way the 22-year old has stepped in to fill the void let when Maloney departed the foot of the mountains for a stint with Catalans Dragons in the English Super League.
"I know there was question marks over Penrith coming into this season because of the experience of losing James Maloney, and who is going to run the side but I'm not surprised ... I was always confident that Nathan would step up and be able to control the game, which is what he's doing so well. It's his side," the Fox League commentator said.
It isn't just Cleary's kicking game and game management that is impressing in season 2020.
In a frightening proposition for what awaits Cherry-Evans in Saturday's halfback duel, Alexander believes Cleary is now more dangerous than ever with the ball in hand.
"Nathan can play direct, in the past he's turned to players on the inside but he is shifting across the field now to find a hole in the defence himself, looking for that tired defender. It has added a bit more to his game, more of danger with the footy," Alexander said.
"It's a great battle between those two this weekend."
Originally published as Rich 100: Cleary topples NRL's biggest earner