The impact of the Warriors’ thrilling run to this year’s grand final appears to have spread much further than New Zealand, with senior Penrith players admitting they are now counting down the days until new coach Ivan Cleary’s arrival at the foot of the mountains.
Cleary’s appointment in place of caretaker coach Steve Georgallis in 2012 received only a lukewarm reception from the playing group when it was announced in late June, with many angered that the popular Georgallis hadn’t been given a chance to prove himself after taking over from sacked predecessor Matthew Elliott.
But the Warriors’ entertaining charge to last Sunday’s decider has changed their tune with players contacted by NRL.com admitting they were excited by the prospect of Cleary taking over in the coming months.
“By the looks of things, he lets the players play their games,” back-rower Luke Lewis said.
“As a rugby league player coming through, you got to first grade by playing football and enjoying what you do. I think Ivan has given that freedom to all those young guys at the Warriors that have been playing special football this year.
“[Kevin] Locke and [Shaun] Johnson and [James] Maloney are all playing great football because they’ve got the freedom to do it. Hopefully he brings that same mentality to us so Michael Jennings and Brad Tighe and Michael Gordon get that freedom as well.”
Lewis said he was impressed by the composure Cleary had displayed during the Warriors’ tough road to the grand final and insisted the experience he had gained in guiding the Kiwi club to the finals four times in the past five years could only benefit the Panthers.
“From an outside perspective watching Ivan Cleary as a coach, he looks so cool, calm and collected,” Lewis said. “I think that’s why the Warriors made the grand final. He doesn’t put too much pressure back onto the players while the game is actually on.
“The other thing too, to make the grand final and the experience that he is getting now, he has taken them to the semi-finals plenty of times before so he knows how to get there.
“Now that he has been to a grand final – and putting in a couple of great performances on the way – is a massive boost. He’ll be bringing that experience to us. Everyone says semi-final football is a different ball game and that’s spot-on. Ivan has made the Warriors realise that and I think they’ve been enjoying the ride.”
Kevin Kingston said he was similarly impressed with Cleary’s performance this season, having previously known little about the Warriors’ coach. The Panthers hooker has recently spoken with former Parramatta team-mates Feleti Mateo and Krisnan Inu and believes Cleary will make a huge difference at the foot of the mountains.
“They’ve all got such high regard for him – I haven’t heard a bad word about him at the moment,” Kingston said.
“I love the way he composes himself. I’m really looking forward to being coached by him. To be honest, I was pretty disappointed that the Warriors didn’t win on the weekend – it would have been good to see him have that success before he comes over – but he has done such a good job anyway.”
Like Lewis, Kingston said he expected Cleary would get the best out of the Panthers’ lethal backline and said he was particularly impressed with the transformation of Mateo from enigmatic star to big-game player in 2011.
“The work he has done with Feleti Mateo – Feleti has such flamboyance but the way [Cleary] has been able to control that I think is pretty impressive.
“We’ve got plenty of talent at this club a swell and if he can harness that we’ll be in good stead.”
Prop Tim Grant said that the club had now moved on from their mid-season dramas surrounding Georgallis.
“There was plenty of emotion at the time but that’s all settled now and I can’t wait to be coached by [Cleary],” he said.
“We’ve all moved on and it’s important that we just focus on the future. I think what he will bring to the club will be great for us and having blokes like (trainer) Ron Palmer and (assistant) David Fairleigh coming as well is something I’m really looking forward to. It will be great to have a specialist forwards coach like David around.”
The return for pre-season training on November 7.