New Panthers coach Ivan Cleary sees a silver lining in the mass exodus of talent and experience at Penrith over the off-season, labelling the losses of several linchpin stars a “real opportunity” for new squad members to stamp their career claims.
Cleary acknowledges the club faces a tough task filling the void left by the departures of Petero Civoniceva, Trent Waterhouse, Frank Puletua and others – but says he expects the situation to prompt fringe first graders and ambitious juniors to enter the frame.
“There are certainly some good players and a lot of experience in those names,” Cleary told NRL.com. “But I guess with change in the club, and when guys like that leave, there is a real opportunity for others to step up.”
Cleary said he anticipated experienced hands to lead the way in 2012.
“Luke Lewis has been here for a long time, he was part of the 2003 premiership side at Penrith… from a kid he’s developed into a really senior player and obviously playing in the Australian side he’s right up there as one of the top players in the game,” he said.
“We’ve recruited Clint Newton… he played for Newcastle and Melbourne, he’s been there in England the last few years and he’s a real leader; he’s got a lot of experience in the game, he understands the game and he’s passionate about helping young guys.
“There’s also a lot of other guys like Mick Gordon… Brad Tighe… they’ve been around the traps for a while and it’s their opportunity I guess to step up their leadership.”
Cleary’s former club the Warriors and his new unit the Panthers were the most prolific offloaders in the NRL last season – however Penrith’s new mentor is wary of his charges maintaining that mantle in 2012.
“I’m not too sure about that… Trent Waterhouse – I’m sure he was high on the offloads list and he’s not here anymore [Waterhouse ranked fourth in the NRL for offloads in 2011 with 56],” Cleary said.
“Traditionally the Panthers have had guys who can offload the ball and we’ve got a couple in our squad… we’ll still sort of find our way as to what works for us best – there’s a little bit of sorting out to do just yet.”
The Panthers struggled in attack in 2011, scoring the third-fewest tries – but Cleary said he was “not looking too far in the past” as he plotted the return of their point-scoring potency.
“I got the job mid-year and followed their progress after that – I’m not really privy to how they played and what they were trying to achieve really,” he said.
“I’ve got my own ideas on what we’ll do but also part of that will be getting a feel of what works best with these guys I haven’t really coached yet.
“We’ll get there; obviously it’s important to score points but it’s obviously important to defend well as well.”
Cleary would not be drawn into confirming the Panthers’ best ‘on-paper’ line-up, which most observers believe to be Lachlan Coote at fullback and Origin representative Michael Gordon on the wing.
“It might, yeah… it might not… we’ll just have to wait and see!” he said.
“Mick’s certainly left no stone unturned and he’s made every post a winner at training. He’s been outstanding for a guy who’s recovering from a knee reconstruction, he’s been really good, really strong.
“Lachlan’s had a few injuries he’s getting over but he’s showing some good signs as well. But a little bit of competition for an important spot like fullback isn’t going to hurt too much. As for the outcome and who gets first crack? I don’t know yet.”
Cleary nominated 20-year-old utility Blake Austin as one of the new breed to keep an eye on.
“It’s probably a little early just yet but I like what I see, you know guys like Blake Austin… he’s a young guy who is certainly doing his best out there,” he said. “He knows where he wants to go… he had a couple of games last year.
“Young Harry Seijka, he played in the halves… unfortunately Harry’s been hamstrung a little bit by a groin injury, he had to have some surgery so his preparation has been slightly hampered but I’m sure he’ll show his wares during the season.
“From what I saw last year he’s certainly got some ability. Talking to him… again, he’s a young fellow who knows where he wants to go but he plays in a pretty difficult position too there in the halves.
“We won’t be rushing him to become a superstar too soon; we’ll just let nature take its course. But I think he’s got a pretty good future.
“There’s a few other guys we’ve got high hopes for but I don’t want to put too much pressure on them just yet.”
Also Cleary believes former Bulldog Chris Armit may thrive at his new home.
“Pretty under-rated player I think, Chris. He’s played almost 150 first grade games with the ’Dogs and Parramatta before that… just a real professional,” Cleary said.
“I mean he’s trained every session flat-out and he’s doing some work for himself on the side. He’s got a young family, he’s a busy man – but you wouldn’t know it. He turns up every day and his consistency is amazing.
“He’s certainly preparing a good foundation for him to have a great season – maybe the change of club too might be the refreshing start so he can really kick-start his career.”
Cleary said he was heartened by the club set-up the moment he walked into his office at the foot of the Blue Mountains.
“Yeah, first impressions have been good,” he enthused. “There’s obviously been a fair bit of change here since Phil Gould took over midway through last year; you can sense that from people you speak to… players and staff – not only in the club but at the Leagues club as well.
“Certainly there’s a really buoyant mood, optimistic mood of change and looking forward to the future. Yeah, I’m pretty happy with what I see so far.”
Engaging with fans would be a priority, he revealed – especially given the Panthers languished near the bottom of the list for average home fan numbers last season, their paltry 12,229 each game at Centrebet Stadium ahead of only Cronulla’s 12,094.
“It’s certainly a tough year in the NRL – 24 tough games – so you want to make your home a place where we enjoy playing and the other teams don’t,” Cleary said.
“As far as the crowds go it’s extremely important we engage with the community number one and that we produce a product on the field that the fans can be proud of and can be entertained by.
“The players have been doing a lot of work and they’re out there in the community already… feedback’s been good. And I’d just say to the fans: ‘Be patient.’ Our plan is to have a team that you can all be really proud of and come along and bring your family each week and enjoy a day out – and hopefully a victory.”
And how had the new coach been received by the Panthers fan in the street?
“No-one’s bagged me yet… we haven’t lost a game I guess!” he said.