After playing his way back into State of Origin contention, Newcastle captain Mitchell Pearce threw his support behind Nathan Cleary to retain the NSW No.7 jersey.
With Cleary struggling to regain the form that earned him Blues selection as a 20-year-old last season, South Sydney halfback Adam Reynolds and Pearce have emerged as alternatives but the 18-Origin veteran believes NSW coach Brad Fittler should stick with the Penrith playmaker.
"I don’t think Nathan Cleary should not be there. That is my opinion," Pearce said.
The 30-year-old former Rooster has played in seven Origin series without winning one but trying to change that record has not been his main motivation since moving to Newcastle last season.
Given the responsibility of captaining the Knights, he has been in arguably career-best form and he finished third in last year’s Dally M voting despite being restricted to just 15 Telstra Premiership matches due to a pectoral injury.
Pearce has continued that form this season and he earned three Dally M points in each of Newcastle’s last three matches, including Sunday’s 45-12 defeat of St George Illawarra at Glen Willow Oval.
Fittler mentioned Pearce as an option if he doesn't stick with Cleary and cited the veteran's combination with Sydney Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary, as well as other former teammates at the club.
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While he would put his hand up if Fittler wanted to select him, Pearce understands better than most the pressure Cleary is under.
"I don’t feel like I have to talk myself up," he said after a performance in which he scored a try, had a hand in four others and kicked a field goal.
"I have played plenty of [Origin] games, I haven’t had much success - it has been talked about for 10 years. I am happy with my footy, I know what I bring, I am comfortable with myself as a player.
"If the Blues want to go with me I am not going to say no but I think Nathan Cleary would do a really good job. He is a young kid, he would be confident in that arena, he did well last year.
"I feel a bit sorry for him copping a lot of criticism there. I am sure he would do a good job. He has got a steady game, that is probably one of his strengths. He doesn’t stretch himself too thin, he just has a solid game that he trusts."
The NSW team will be named next Sunday but Pearce’s focus is performing well against the Roosters next Friday night in a match which is expected to attract a crowd of more than 25,000 at McDonald Jones Stadium.
"It’s a chance for us to go five in a row which is huge and obviously against the world beaters, the Roosters, so it is a massive game," Pearce said.
"They are the best team in the comp at the moment, they are a world-class side and I have got a lot of friends there so I am excited."
Asked if he was now a better player than when he left the Roosters to make way for Cooper Cronk after 11 seasons and more than 25 games for the club, Pearce said he was now a leader.
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"I feel like I have really developed as a player, I feel like I have learned a lot more as a player at the Knights since coming here as far as leadership goes," he said.
"I have had to probably learn some more skills that I wasn’t as good at so I have had to work really hard. It is early in the season but I am really happy with the development. There is a good leadership group around us and we are working to be the best leaders we can be.
"The team deserves that, the town deserves that but we have still got a long way to go with myself as captain and the leaders. We are working really hard to set the energy for the boys each week."