Understated or underrated? Why Cleary rarely enters coaching greats debate

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Just two years ago, leading into the 2021 grand final, Ivan Cleary was being mentioned in unflattering terms alongside Brian Smith.

Then, Cleary’s record of 369 premiership games for no premiership rings ranked behind only Smith’s 601 matches coached without a title, unfair as the boiling down of a career to one triumph may seem.

Now just 80 minutes away from a third straight title, Cleary is now due to be mentioned in alongside Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson and Wayne Bennett as the most successful coaches of the NRL era. After all, not since Jack Gibson has a coach delivered three consecutive premierships from as many attempts.

“He should be spoken about like that but for whatever reason he isn’t,” Panthers co-captain Isaah Yeo said of Cleary.

“He’s extremely calm and incredibly smart but probably doesn’t get the raps he deserves. But trust me, he gets them in these four walls.

“I’m not sure why. He’s a pretty quiet bloke, he doesn’t put himself out in the media all that much. He doesn’t say anything that might ruffle feathers.

“He just worries about what’s happening here [at Penrith] and as a team that trickles down. We just worry about what we’re doing.

“And then you stop and think about the last few years, we’ve lost assistant coaches, we’ve lost players in key positions but everyone he brings in, he coaches so that they can come in seamlessly.”

Casting back to those weeks before Cleary’s breakthrough title triumph, after grand final defeats in 2011 and 2020, brings us full circle, in more ways than one.

Cleary made a rare departure from the understated, media-averse nature Yeo speaks of, firing a rare shot about son Nathan being illegally targeted by defenders.

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary and son Nathan embrace after last year’s grand final win over Parramatta.Credit: Getty

Bennett – the reigning heavyweight champion when it comes to manipulating the media to his advantage – played him off a break, using a week’s worth of news cycle to spark a Rabbitohs upset in week one of the finals.

“I’ll be doing what I’m good at and staying in the background this week,” a chastened Cleary said when Penrith booked a return bout with South Sydney in the decider.

He’s done exactly that ever since, politely declining calls and interview requests that were fielded leading into Penrith’s first 2020 grand final under him.

Like clockwork, the same predictable storyline about Penrith’s kick blockers and opposition pressure on Nathan Cleary has resurfaced this week. Just as they did during last year’s finals series as well.

“Maybe everyone just reads their notes from the previous year,” Cleary deadpanned during the week.

Cleary himself is a bit the same. Of course he evolves, questions and learns along the way to a fourth straight grand final and place among the game’s great coaches.

James Maloney – a heavyweight pest of the most serious repute – once recalled only “one or two” blow-ups from Cleary during two lengthy, separate stints together at the Warriors and Panthers.

“Even in 2019 when we were struggling, I didn’t see any blow-ups. He’s always been that level-headed guy you see, and that’s my favourite thing about him as a coach,” back-rower Liam Martin said.

“He’s never tried to change that side of who he is, it’s stayed the same. He’ll give you the talk, and it’s that ‘I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed’ talk. It makes you feel even worse, you wish he did spray you.

“I feel like he does get overlooked a little bit, I think he deserves a lot more recognition for what he’s done in the game. Especially with what he’s done over the last few years here, it’s just incredible how happy we are and how well we run as a club. He’s certainly made me the player I am today and I owe him a lot.”

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