Brad Fittler announced his squad for game one on Sunday night with the Penrith halfback retaining his spot, partnered alongside South Sydney pivot Cody Walker.
The in-form Rabbitoh, who will be making his Origin debut, was preferred ahead of last year's series-winning five-eighth James Maloney after Roosters playmaker Luke Keary was ruled out following a heavy head knock in the loss to Newcastle on Friday night.
Apart from Walker, Brisbane's Payne Haas, South Sydney lock Cameron Murray, and Canberra duo Jack Wighton and Nick Cotric are the other uncapped Blues.
Fittler said he wanted to stick with Cleary after his efforts in the winning 2018 series. While he conceded the appeal of pairing Walker with club halves partner and 2016 Blues rep Adam Reynolds, the fact Reynolds picked up an ankle injury over the weekend after Cleary starred against the Eels on Thursday made the decision easier.
"The fact Adam went down and he's going to be out for a couple of days… I spoke to Nathan during the week about what he's playing under at the moment and asked about, if he stands up this week it tells us that he'll be right and I thought he was fantastic," Fittler said.
"The combination with [Reynolds and] Cody Walker could have been valuable but the cards fell the way they did and Nathan got the shot.
"I wanted to pick Nathan, I wanted to pick all the team from last year but it's hard not to look at Souths and the way they’ve been playing."
Fittler conceded he didn't yet know Walker personally but was excited to get him into camp.
"We've been speaking about Cody for a long time; you'd be blind if you didn’t see the sort of form he's in and what he can do at the moment," Fittler said.