CLEARY’S DRIVE TO BE NO. 1
From quiet achiever to culture setter, Ivan has established himself as one of the greats, but one thing eludes him.
Trophies trump longevity. So says Penrith legend Royce Simmons, who believes an NRL premiership could crown Ivan Cleary as the club’s best ever coach should he guide his side over South Sydney in Sunday’s decider.
Better than Phil Gould, and better than John Lang, both of whom coached the Panthers to memorable grand final triumphs in 1991 and 2003 respectively.
They’re the only two in Penrith’s history.
Cleary quietly became the Panthers’ longest-serving coach with last week’s gripping preliminary final win over Melbourne, surpassing Simmons’s mark of 171 games in charge. But as for being Penrith’s best? Simmons reckons Cleary, who has two more years on his current deal, can coach for another 10 and still wouldn’t want his name mentioned alongside ‘Gus’ and ‘Langy’.
“That’s what I like about him the most,” Simmons said.
“There’s no way he would want to rate himself as good a coach as Phil or Johnny while he hadn’t won a premiership.”
A loss against the Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium will extend Cleary’s record in deciders to an unenviable 0-3, beginning with his first missed opportunity with the Warriors in 2011.
A third failed attempt would serve to strengthen fears over his ability to lead the mountain men to the mountain top.
Only Brian Smith has coached more games (601) without raising the trophy, while Cleary is the only coach to have coached more than 250 games and not won a premiership.
Lang went what was then a record 249 games before leading Penrith to glory in 2003.
Like Smith, Cleary has developed a reputation for being a successful rebuilding coach, presiding over successful stints at both the Warriors and western Sydney.
Cleary carried his unflappable persona to where he had spent the final three years of his playing career in Auckland, where he landed his first gig as head coach in 2006.
“I found it pretty refreshing,” says former captain Michael Luck.
“Here was this coach who would treat you no different regardless of whether you won or lost, or whether you had a good or bad game.”
Prior to Cleary’s arrival in Auckland, the Warriors were widely considered the league’s most inconsistent team, capable of unpredictable brilliance but easily susceptible under pressure.
But, during Cleary’s six years in charge, the Warriors advanced to the finals four times, and it would’ve been a fifth had it not been for a salary cap punishment in his first year in charge.
“For forever and a day the perception about the Warriors was that they were big forwards that had razzledazzle footy, but you stay in and hang in long enough and they’ll fold,” Luck said. “That was part of the Warriors perception from their inception.
“But it was absolutely untrue in those late 2000s, early 2010s.
“Ivan brought a level of consistency that hadn’t been seen before at the Warriors … and to be honest, it hasn’t been seen since.”
It all culminated in Cleary’s first shot at the title in 2011, only to be soundly beaten by Manly in what was his final game in charge.
Simmons remembers the instant change at the club following Cleary’s arrival in 2012.
“Penrith’s only a young club, which didn’t have a hell of a lot of history,” Simmons recalled.
“I returned to the club in another role in the commercial side, and young players walked out of their way, 40-50 metres to shake my hand and say ‘G’day’, and I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ I didn’t even expect these kids to know who I was.
“That was the first thing that impressed me straight away about Ivan.”
Cleary took over at a time when the club was on the brink of financial ruin, and the returns were just as meagre on the field.
Penrith progressed to the finals just once in four years – a fairytale run to the preliminary final in 2014 – before Cleary was deemed a “tired” coach and sacked the following year.
IVAN THE TIGER
A rested Cleary only had to wait a year before being back in the hot seat, this time tasked with awakening the Tigers out of a seemingly never-ending slumber.
But, just as the foundations were being set on his rebuild, Cleary was lured by the opportunity to return to Penrith and reunite with son, Nathan, who was blossoming into a star.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve had – split the difference between him and Des (Hasler),” said former Tigers utility Moses Mbye. “He has a really good knack of allowing people to do what they do best.”
Cleary delivered an underwhelming 10th-place finish in his first season back.
But Penrith have been one of the league’s best success stories since, losing just six of 50 games over the past two seasons leading into Sunday’s decider.
He has emerged not only as Penrith’s longest-serving coach, but also one of their most successful, with his 56.7 winning percentage behind Ron Willey and Anthony Griffin.
And while he might not have a trophy in his cabinet just yet, a new deal is certain.
“We have a great relationship with Ivan and that will come up whenever,” boss Brian Fletcher said.