Ivan the terribly consistent over-achiever: Cleary vaults into greatest coaches debate by habitually exceeding expectations


As a player, Ivan Cleary was never a representative star but always under-rated despite being a crucial component of every team he played in.

Now as a coach, despite winning three premierships, it’s possible that he is still not getting due credit for Penrith’s dynastic dominance. 

Some people will have you believe that he’s not even the most important member of his family when it comes to the Panthers’ three straight titles. 

The club’s roster is stacked, Nathan Cleary is the best player in the game, the assistant coaches were the real brains behind the operation, the Broncos choked. There are plenty of reasons put forward as to why Penrith are kings of the NRL but the coach does not seem to get sufficient recognition. 

If you need to be convinced about Cleary’s coaching credentials, you need to look no further than Thursday night’s 22-16 triumph over the Roosters at Allianz Stadium.

Everything was set up for the home side to topple the premiers.

The betting market swung on its axis when news of Nathan Cleary’s injury came through early last week with the Panthers going from firm favourites to rank outsiders. 

But the coach’s calmness and commitment cooked the Chooks. 

As far as he was concerned, nothing changed for his team. 

“Nat seems to have a sabbatical every year, this one’s a bit earlier,” Ivan Cleary said 48 hours before his team rumbled with the Roosters with journeyman Brad Schneider stepping into the No.7 jersey. “This might be a silver lining.”

You can say that sort of thing when you have collected the past three premiership rings and a Round 4 clash in March won’t make or break your chances of a fourth. 

Nathan and Ivan Cleary after the 2021 Grand Final win. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

But not a lot changed – the Panthers started strongly, retained their usual shapes in attack and dismantled the Roosters. 

Isaah Yeo operated like the NRL’s biggest halfback, being the fulcrum for their attacking moves with Schneider taking care of the kicking duties – you need more than one player to replace Cleary.

And that allowed Jarome Luai to play to his strengths, as a secondary playmaker cashing in on broken play (Tigers coach Benji Marshall should have taken note of that for next year), and Dylan Edwards to do what he always does.

The Panthers fullback topped the running metres with 246, with more than half (126) from kick returns, set another up and even banged over a couple of sideline conversions. He also led his team for tackle breaks (six) and post-contact metres (75).

Cleary didn’t reinvent the wheel for the Panthers and his commitment to their cause led to two competition points that otherwise could have been squandered if he tried to overcompensate for his son’s absence. 

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When it comes to the modern coaches who are considered all-time greats, Cleary may end up with more than all of them apart from Wayne Bennett’s record of seven. 

Trent Robinson has three, as has Craig Bellamy (in legit premierships) and only Des Hasler, with two, has multiple titles among active coaches and the Titanic looks more likely to resurface than the Titans winning one anytime soon. 

Bennett has not won one since 2010 and is without a job after this season’s campaign with the fledgling Dolphins while Shane Flanagan is rebuilding St George Illawarra seven years after his one title with the Sharks and Ricky Stuart is now more than two decades removed from his sole premiership success with the Roosters.

Cleary missed out on a premiership as a player despite going close at each of his stops from Manly to North Sydney, the Roosters and then the Warriors. 

His final match was the 2002 Grand Final loss to the Roosters when he quietly bowed out without any fanfare, aged 31, when he probably could have continued on for another couple of seasons after he was the fourth leading pointscorer that year at 242 behind a few rather handy players in Hazem El Masri, Brett Kimmorley and Andrew Johns.

Despite never getting a look-in at representative level, Cleary finished with an enviable record of 186 games across 11 seasons to rack up 1363 points along the way. 

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

He has already lost the mantle of most career points in his family with Nathan up to 1437 and climbing after his 162 appearances for the Panthers.

The truest measure of a coach’s ability is not measured in premierships but how high they can take a team on the ladder with the talent at their disposal.

Since kicking off his coaching career in 2006, Cleary has made a habit of lifting sides above pre-season expectations. 

He only had one losing season in his six at the Warriors which culminated in their surprise run to the 2011 Grand Final where they were outclassed by the Manly machine. 

In his first stint at Penrith, he rebuilt a team which was in a state of constant flux following salary cap mismanagement which led to the exit of Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon, Petero Civoniceva and Michael Jennings. 

Despite that, he still managed to get them to the 2014 prelim final before the Panthers prematurely ejected Cleary from the coaching position the following year for Anthony Griffin.

Despite three of their biggest stars in James Tedesco, Mitchell Moses and Aaron Woods leaving, Cleary had the Tigers on the verge of a rare playoff berth in just his second season of trying to make them a respectable outfit when his tenure ended abruptly because the Panthers were keen to get him back. 

And that has proved to be one of the smartest decisions in Penrith’s club history because with three trophies already filling the cabinet, they are favourites to add another in 2024 and with the nucleus of their team signed long term, they are well placed to be the most successful dynasty in premiership history since St George’s golden run of the 1960s. 

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