WHY I GOT OFF THE BUS
IVAN CLEARY BREAKS HIS SILENCE
IVAN Cleary is sitting back on a leather swivel chair in his office at the Panthers Rugby League Academy.
In readiness for his first official training session tomorrow as Penrith’s head coach since 2015, Cleary has spreadsheets and highlighted printouts aligned for every player in his 30-man squad laid out across his desk.
Before pressing record on the tape for his first interview since his polarising departure from the Wests Tigers 11 days ago, The Sunday Telegraph is taken through the academy that was opened in 2016.
Into the gym, past the players’ dressing room, recovery baths, coaching staff areas and finally, a glance out onto the two training fields.
“I only came through the academy for the first time last week — and originally, I was one of the people asked for input into its design,’’ Cleary said. “What was the biggest factor in returning to Penrith? There’s plenty, but I’d say unfinished business.’’
Cleary coached the Panthers for four seasons, earning Dally M coach-of-the-year honours in 2014 when they reached a preliminary final. At the end of 2015 he was sacked after being told by general manager Phil Gould he was looking “tired’’.
“It was a complete club rebuild. And we were making progress, so to be exited when you can see what’s coming was hard,’’ Cleary said.
Son Nathan Cleary debuted in 2016, part of a glut of junior talent rising through the ranks.
“I’ve sat back watching Nathan play for the last three years and I’ve watched this club, the academy and the pathways develop and grow,” Cleary said.
“And the whole time, I’m thinking, ‘I’ll never be back here to finish what I started’.”
Many will wonder how Cleary could return given the way he was shown the door.
“I asked myself the same question — but I felt straight away that there was no one here that thought I shouldn’t be doing this job.” OFF THE BUS Cleary’s split from the Wests Tigers with two years remaining on his contract captivated the NRL’s attention.
The 47-year-old accepts responsibility for the situation he left Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe in and so, too, the club’s passionate fans. But he is adamant that he acted with honesty towards the powerbrokers and the players, adding that he was willing to remain at the Tigers until the end of his 2020 contract.
“What I couldn’t do was commit to (a deal) after 2020 — and that’s the crux of it,’’ Cleary said. “It wasn’t my decision to leave the Tigers, it was mutual.
“In a perfect world, I would prefer the circumstances to be different — but they are what they are. When I signed the original contract with the Wests Tigers (in 2017), I had absolutely every intent to not go anywhere.
“People can have their opinions about the decisions I’ve made — but I was transparent and I was 100 per cent honest with the Tigers.’’ PANTHERS POUNCE The Panthers’ first play for Cleary occurred in late July when Penrith chairman David O’Neill asked if he would consider ever returning.
“It was nothing formal, it was very loosely that he asked would I be interested,’’ Cleary said. “And I said yes, I would be. There was nothing specific, because we all understood I had a contract at the Tigers.
“They (Penrith) just said they were considering the head coaching position moving forward.
“I had a contract until the end of 2020, so my thought was I better go talk to the Tigers, which I thought was only fair, including Justin, (Tigers chair) Marina (Go) and
I spouke to a couple of board members and that’s when they told me, ‘there’s no way you’re going anywhere, you’ve got a contract’. The next morning I told the players exactly what I had told the board — but also, the club has made a strong stance and I’m not going anywhere. At the time, that was the position,which is why there was no need to elaborate in the press.”
THE REAL DEAL
Cleary’s silence continued in the media because he felt there was nothing more to explain. That was, until a formal offer from Penrith arrived in late September. "Unfortunately that was leaked (to the press) as well, so by the time I got back to talk to the Tigers, there was already external pressure. However, I offered full dis- closure to anyone that needed to know.
“All I said (to the Tigers hierarchy) was, it’s my intention to sign with them (Penrith) in 2021.
“That was a pretty tough thing, obviously.’’
The Tigers were unwilling to stick with a coach who had signed with a rival club.
Cleary was formally granted a release from the Tigers 11 days ago, yet he only put pen to paper on a five-year deal with the Panthers last Wednesday.
He texted the Tigers players to thank them, but wished now he had the chance to speak to them individually.
“There was a bunch of other stuff in there I would’ve liked to say and thank God I didn’t because it would’ve ended up in the media.’’
Coaching son Nathan — who will move out of the family home for the first time after Christmas — was an obvious lure for Cleary, but perhaps not the grapple hook most believe.
“It’s a factor — but again, there’s a lot of factors,’’ Cleary said. “I did have a sense that if I didn’t take this chance, it may never happen again. That’s the thing about the NRL, opportunity only knocks once and I wanted to get him (Nathan) to the Tigers — that was something we wanted to do (together) as well.”
Asked how he would handle resting or dropping his son, Cleary said: “He’s going to be like everyone else. There’ll be some difficult situations and he knows that and I know that. But we’ll deal with those like I would with any other player. He’s moving out soon and I think that’s a good timing.’’
Cleary is under no illusions why he’s been brought back to Penrith — to win the club’s first title since 2003. The pressure is on at the foot of the mountains — and Cleary knows it.
“There’s always pressure. I read an article last week about all the coaches under pressure and that wasn’t even about winning comps,’’ Cleary said.
“The biggest pressure on me is that we improve the team and I’m looking forward to doing that.
“It’s a little bit scary, but that’s the thrill of it, too.’’
Returning Penrith coach Ivan Cleary and (left) on his first day at the Panthers in 2011; (inset right) Nathan Cleary.