Ivan Cleary knows a thing or two about rebuilds but when he was brought back to the foot of the mountains three years ago, this was supposed to be different.
This Panthers team had potential. But it was time for them to be more than just a team with potential. They were ready to contend for a title and Cleary was the man to take them there.
Instead, one of the competition’s pre-season fancies won just two of their opening 10 games to finish outside the top eight for the first time in four years.
Experienced five-eighth James Maloney was let go while Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Waqa Blake also made premature exits, with nine players later handed their debuts.
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“No one’s calling it a rebuild,” Cleary said at the time.
“We’ve certainly made some adjustments, we’ve had nine debutants this year, which is more than any other club, all have come through our system.
“We’re playing a pretty young team. But we’re confident in our system. I know the path forward, I know what we need to do.”
It looked like Cleary was just deflecting, that both he and the Panthers did not want to admit that instead of taking the next step towards title contention, they had in fact gone backwards.
But Cleary was insistent — this was no rebuild.
Now, over three years later, Penrith is lining up for their third-straight grand final while Cleary will bring up his 200th game as Panthers coach.
It is a result that seemed inconceivable when Cleary was dramatically sacked in 2015 and yet now, he becomes the first coach in club history to reach that milestone.
Speaking on ‘Straight Talk with Mark Bouris’ after last year’s grand final, Cleary opened up about his coaching ambitions and transformation in a wide-ranging interview.
It provided a fascinating insight into just how Cleary has reinvented himself as both a coach and a person to craft the Panthers into a premiership powerhouse.
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“That was pretty much all I knew in terms of coaching,” Cleary said on the podcast of his tag as a development coach.
“I’d started three rebuilds. Probably until the last couple of years, that’s what I had done. In many respects, I always wanted to win the competition but I was about realistically just trying to build something.”
Coaching the defending premiers is a very different challenge. The Panthers were the pinnacle of the league, once the hunter and now the hunted.
After all, it was only a few years ago that the Roosters finally became the first team in the NRL era to win back-to-back titles.
Yet Cleary and the Panthers have made it look easy. Somehow, they have been even more dominant than they were last season, dropping just four games and one of those came with virtually the entire first-grade side rested.
For Cleary, it all comes back to creating a winning culture.
That can mean different things to different people and Cleary has been on his own journey towards really narrowing in on what that means for him.
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“I think the biggest job that I have is to create an environment where people can succeed, both individually and collectively,” he said on Bouris’ podcast.
“The number one role in my job is to win games. The environment I feel like is my biggest role, to create a winning environment. But I also just happen to believe that to be able to win, it’s got to feel good and safe and people have to like going to work.”
Apisai Koroisau told Channel 9 earlier this week that there is “nothing” he would not approach Cleary to talk about, such is the environment he has created at the foot of the mountains.
“The way he responds to people, the way he speaks to people gives them that safety that he can be that guy,” Koroisau said.
“He’s actually worked really hard on trying to communicate really well. He used to be really awkward, really awkward. He’d just walked past the door and stare at you and then walk past but his communication skills have gone through the roof.”
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Cleary said it was challenging at times earlier in his coaching career when the results were not coming his way, leaving him wondering whether he had to be a more dominant voice, even if it did not come naturally.
“I’m not a dictator. I’m not a micro-manager,” Cleary said.
“I’m just not that sort of person. In periods of my coaching career when I was down on my confidence I would sometimes look at guys who are seen to be like dictators or aggressive yellers and think, ‘Wow, maybe that is what I have to be like? Maybe I’m just going to go OK but never hit the heights’. When you’re down you start to doubt yourself.”
It would have been easy for Cleary to fall into that trap once more in 2019 but he “knew the path forward” and that this was just a transition period, not the start of another rebuild.
What followed was a record-breaking reign of dominance few saw coming but even after guiding Penrith to its first title in 18 years, the new challenge for Cleary was to sustain it.
So, Cleary went about making small changes that would end up having a big difference.
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You start with the addition of former Penrith junior Sean O’Sullivan, who had an even larger role than he would have imagined this season, playing 11 games in Nathan Cleary’s absence.
Cleary’s selection of Tyrone May at halfback in 2021 was certainly puzzling and costly in the end, with the Panthers stumbling midway through the season without their Origin contingent.
But with May sacked and Matt Burton leaving, Cleary learned from his mistake and brought in a more traditional halfback in O’Sullivan to fill the void and he has been sensational.
“It’s bittersweet,” Cleary said of the departure of O’Sullivan, who is heading to the Dolphins, earlier in the season.
“Sean’s been good for us, really good for us. He’s come here and done the exact job we wanted him to do. We’ve probably been good for him too.”
Even after winning a premiership, Cleary was still plotting ways to improve, to better prepare his team for the unfamiliar challenge of being defending premiers.
That included resting virtually the entire first-choice side in Penrith’s Round 25 clash with North Queensland, having done the exact opposite the year prior against Parramatta.
It was not necessarily that Cleary felt like that decision was to blame for Penrith’s qualifying final loss to South Sydney. He just knew the circumstances were different this time around.
The same went for when illegal blockers once again became a talking point in the lead-up to their preliminary final against the Rabbitohs.
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The year before Cleary had engaged in a war of words with Wayne Bennett over the issue, playing right into the supercoach’s hands according to Cooper Cronk.
“Losing week one of the finals and you spend three quarters of your press conference after losing speaking about those words, influence and manipulation,” Cronk said on Fox League at the time.
“Ivan may or may not have a point about it but I don’t think it’s the right time to be bringing it up.”
This time around, a more experienced Cleary refused to get drawn into the drama, quickly moving on from the potential distraction to coach the Panthers to a 32-12 win.
Speaking on the podcast with Bouris late last year, Cleary said a chat with a close friend provided a light-bulb moment of sorts, where he realised just how special an opportunity he had with this Penrith group.
“As a coach, a lot of the teams I coached I never felt in a position to win it,” he said.
“So often you’re just surviving. I actually got a really good influence from a friend, a guy I know [who said], ‘Your team should win, why should you lose a game or you should only lose a couple of games’ and that was a really good sort of light went on for me where I went, ‘You know what, we should reach a little bit higher here’. It’s not as simple as that of course.
“Probably because I knew I had the team to do it, but no one else thought we could do it and the same this year. We made the grand final last year and we’re so young and it’s going to be so hard to back it up and we’ve done it again.
“I’ve certainly set the goals and sights higher whereas before I was probably always looking to do well as best we could but if I was honest with myself, I was probably in a survival mode.”
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But instead of just surviving Cleary is now thriving, taking the Panthers to their third-straight grand final and looking to become just the second team in the NRL era to win back-to-back titles.
It is a lot of pressure but that is something Cleary embraces, something he “needs” to be at his best.
“I’m actually good at that and when pressure is on and you’ve got to do something, I’m actually good at that,” he said.
“But I used to look at myself and [think], ‘Why can’t I get myself to look at myself like that all the time?’. Definitely [I need the pressure to perform]. I’m much conscious of that now. If we’re going well I go, ‘Come on man, don’t take it easy’.
“It’s going to be a challenge now, we’ve actually won it. The next challenge is to go now.”
Now Cleary is 80 minutes away from answering that challenge and continuing his coaching evolution.