Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary says assistant Garth Brennan is ready to coach in the NRL – and he's got the numbers to prove it.
Brennan, a former Knights lower-grader, is considered one of the front-runners for the job to be vacated by current coach Wayne Bennett in Newcastle at the end of the year.
But it's not just because of his relationship with the area.
In his three years as a lower grade coach at Penrith, Brennan has won 49 from a possible 72 games at a 69 per cent clip that included a Holden Cup premiership last year.
In the same time frame, leading NRL coach Des Hasler has won 64 per cent of his games.
"I think he's definitely up to it. Without going into the specifics of what [Newcastle] looking for, my view is that he's definitely a first grade coach in the waiting," Cleary said on Tuesday.
"He won a premiership last year in NYC and is well on the way to another one in the NSW Cup this year. He's handled that progression of underage players and overage players which is important.
"He's ready for the challenge, I believe. Whilst I'm really enjoying working with him and very grateful for the job he has done here, I certainly wouldn't begrudge him an opportunity."
After taking Newcastle's under-20s team to the finals for the first time in 2011, Brennan was one of the first acquisitions in the Phil Gould era the following year, winning the Holden Cup Coach of the Year award in his first season at Penrith.
In 2013, Brennan went undefeated in his first six games in the NYC before being elevated to the NSW Cup mid-season, where he won half of his 14 games in charge.
But with four games left in the season he returned to his previous post in the -20s, leading the team to victories in seven of their final eight games of the year – including a Holden Cup Grand Final over two-time premiers the Warriors.
All in all, Brennan tasted defeated just once in 14 games in the -20s last year.
This season, his NSW Cup side is well on their way to wrapping up the minor premiership, sitting six points clear of second with a 15-4 record that includes an 11-game winning streak.
"That was a strange situation last year when he began the season as the NYC coach then part way through swapped over to coach Windsor in the NSW Cup. Then he went back to NYC and won the comp," Cleary said.
"I'm not too sure how many coaches have done that in the past but the whole way long, he absolutely never blinked an eyelid and just got on with it. The strength of what he did was develop young players and quite a lot of those boys that were under his tutelage, are now baring fruit for us in the NRL."
Two of those players, rising Penrith talents Bryce Cartwright and Isaah Yeo, spoke glowingly of Brennan's role in their development into NRL-calibre players.
"I remember my first impression was when I was 17, it was my first -20s pre-season and he was an angry little man," Cartwright recalled.
"He's definitely one of the best coaches I've ever had. He's influenced my playing a lot and he's changed my game a fair bit. He's definitely part of the reason why I've improved so much in my game.
"The biggest thing is he backs you 100 per cent. He doesn't tell you go inside your shell, he just wants you to play your own game.
"He doesn't beat around the bush, either. He's straight up and he shows a lot of passion which I like in a coach. That's really admiring."
Yeo said that should Brennan get the gig, Penrith would be losing a valuable member of their coaching staff.
"He's an outstanding coach and a very smart man. A great football mind," he said.
"Obviously I'm not sure what he'll do next year but I know he'll be a big loss to the Panthers. He's been a successful coach here, the proof is in the pudding."