Jake Clifford. NRL; North Queensland Cowboys training at 1300Smiles Stadium. Picture: Alix Sweeney
Jake Clifford. NRL; North Queensland Cowboys training at 1300Smiles Stadium. Picture: Alix Sweeney

Cowboys young gun set for showdown with childhood idol

COWBOYS halfback Jake Clifford was just seven years old when Benji Marshall sank North Queensland's 2005 grand final hopes with his now famous flick pass to Pat Richards.

Clifford was watching the game from his Tully home, and he has never forgotten the moment.

"I do remember it quite clearly, and being such a young Cowboys supporter I was quite shattered," Clifford said.

"I probably would have started crying."

But the Tully junior was mesmerised by the playmaking maestro's skill, and Clifford spent time in the family backyard trying to copy Marshall's in and away sidestep.

Almost 14 years have passed since then and Clifford now finds himself preparing to play Marshall in a true master and apprentice showdown.

"I've never come up against him and I've grown up watching him and seeing how good his footwork is and how he can make some players look stunned with how he moves," Clifford said.

"It's going to be a good challenge for myself and it's a pretty overwhelming experience playing him.

"In the backyard I'd be silly trying to do a good impersonation of him."

Marshall has 296 games of NRL under his belt, Clifford has 13.

Marshall has played more seasons of NRL than Clifford has played games, with the New Zealand international playing his first NRL game in 2003.

The gulf in experience is huge, but Clifford is eager to test himself against his childhood idol, especially in the wake of last weekend's heartbreaking 22-20 loss to Manly.

"I guess I can take a bit of the blame there. I should have led the boys around the park a bit better and try to gain management a bit better," Clifford said.

"That's something I've been working on this week and hopefully I can do it on Friday night.

"We're very excited to be back here at home, I guess you could say we get to redeem ourselves.

"We missed a few opportunities on the weekend to seal the game, so we were disappointed but get to turn it around."

Cowboys second rower Gavin Cooper said Clifford was heading in the right direction despite last weekend's setback.

"He's still finding his feet," he said.

"Look at last year, he had one of the greatest halfbacks ever (Johnathan Thurston) to play alongside him on the field at all times.

"Maybe he's missing that direction earlier in the year, but I think the last couple of weeks he's been pretty good."

Jordan Kahu may be a slight chance of returning from injury for tomorrow night's game, which could lead to a late team reshuffle and Clifford's possible demotion to Queensland Cup, but Clifford said he would be unfazed by any changes.

"I approach every week like I'm playing in the halves, and if 'JK' comes back early that's a big bonus for us with all the injuries we've had," he said.

"If he does come back he'll be very welcomed."