The toughest part of Ivan Cleary’s much publicised move back across the Tasman this year hasn’t been the expectation, the increased media demands or the job of turning around the fortunes of the NRL’s sleeping giant.
No, for a guy who grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches, spent much of his playing career around Bondi’s latte set and for the past six seasons has been the main man with Auckland’s Warriors, it has been the cultural shock of moving to Penrith that has taken the greatest adjustment.
“Because it feels like a country town which is something I’m not used to,” Cleary tells NRL.com as he begins the task of returning the Panthers to premiership glory. “Coming from Auckland to Penrith, the rugby league team is a lot greater focus in the community here.
“I mean, it’s a really good place out here, the people are great and they’re all very keen to support the team. I guess that’s what we’re all about here is creating something the community can be proud of and can engage with.
“We’ve got a big task ahead of us but at the same time it’s a real opportunity for our team to be a focal point and something that everyone can get something out of, which is really cool.”
Cleary admits that his first few months at the foot of the Blue Mountains – which he visited once when he first arrived but hasn’t had a chance to do so again – have been somewhat of a blur. Work aside, much of his spare time has been focused around integrating his wife Rebecca and their four kids into a new life.
“That’s been pretty big for us,” he explains. “They’re going okay now but it’s a big move for them. My kids are around the age where they were firmly entrenched in Auckland so it was a big thing for them to have to go through. But they’re going okay.”
Yet it’s impossible to miss the twang of excitement in Cleary’s voice as he discusses the year ahead and, more so, the long-term goals of his coaching staff and Panthers general manager Phil Gould.
For the time being, those goals are somewhat of a balancing act. The ultimate ambition of the Penrith Panthers Rugby League Club is to make more of their massive junior base and emulate the sustained success of NRL powerhouse Brisbane, who have reached the finals 19 times in the last 20 years, but Cleary remains wary of accepting mediocrity in the meantime.
“I think it was obvious when ‘Gus’ (Gould) came aboard last year that long term is the big focus,” he offers. “It’s not just about the NRL team itself, it’s about the club, the district, the community and everything. There is a real scope for some success and to build something that we’re proud to be a part of.
“That’s going to be the main focus but at the same time the short-term success of the NRL team is absolutely paramount to be the catalyst for that – and that’s my job. Whilst I’ve obviously got an eye on the future and building a strong foundation for the club, my job is to make sure the NRL team performs. And I’m happy with how we’ve prepared but it’s a long hard year and there are many questions to be answered.
“I guess it’s a whole new experience of putting the puzzle together. I do feel like we’ve got a bit of talent in the club and we can build with some good signs for the future. Obviously everyone wants that short term success and having the NRL team perform on the field is important. We feel like we’re in a position to be competitive and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”
Gould’s presence has been central to the seismic shift taking place at the Panthers – not least because he was the man that hand-picked Cleary as the right coach to help him achieve his goals – and the pair have since formed a close bond.
From Cleary’s side, he recognises that having Gould as both a mentor and a confidante represents a rare opportunity not only for the club but for he himself to grow.
“You don’t come across guys like ‘Gus’ too often that not only has political clout and standing in the game but also has the football knowledge – and in all areas, from playing to coaching, administrative… everything,” Cleary says. “Those guys are few and far between and I feel lucky to have someone like that on board. I’ve got all the faith in the world that he is steering the Panthers in the right direction and we’re better for it.
“He is a great support to everyone at the club. He expects results and that’s how it should be but he is very supportive of everyone.”
Asked if he picks Gould’s brains on football-related matters, Cleary openly admits that “Yeah, I do. I mean, he’s still a coach. He loves football and he loves talking about it. I think you’ll find that everyone around the club likes talking football with him because he is just a wealth of knowledge.
“I guess I’m privileged to know him quite well now and I know how he likes football to be played. I have always found him good to talk to and I still do. We understand each other’s roles but he is there if we need him and I’ll certainly be knocking on his door because I already have.”
One such dilemma has already played itself out quite publicly.
The 2012 NRL season was still a month away when star back Michael Gordon – who as luck (or bad luck, in this case) would have it suffered another severe leg injury in Saturday’s loss to the Bulldogs – threatened to quit the club if he didn’t win the race for the No.1 jersey ahead of fellow fullback option Lachlan Coote. Despite the ultimatum, Coote eventually scored a points decision for Round 1, with Cleary relegating Gordon to the wing last week and insisting all decisions would always be made with the team, rather than individuals, in mind.
“I guess that selection had been a big talking point and it had obviously been an option to have Mick Gordon playing fullback,” he said. “He has shown that he is more than capable of playing there but he has had huge success on the wing at Penrith for many years as well. He gained State of Origin selection. Look, it’s just a case of making decisions that best suit the team and gives the team the best chance of winning. I’m happy with the decision we made.”
Gordon’s latest injury aside (he is expected to be sidelined for up to 12 weeks), Cleary isn’t buying into the theory that 2012 will be a ‘re-building year’ for the Panthers. Widely tipped to either be left with the wooden spoon or come close given the departure of Trent Waterhouse, Frank Puletua, Timana Tahu, Shane Elford, Adrian Purtell, Matthew Bell and of course Petero Civoniceva, there is little doubt that the club’s depth will be challenged should they endure a bad run with injury. Lady luck has already frowned on the mountain men.
Yet Cleary has high hopes for his current squad and is crystal clear as to what he expects over the coming months.
“I understand that everyone is paid to have an opinion but it’s pretty hard, I think, for anyone to predict who is going to come where in an NRL season,” he offers.
“There are probably good enough reasons why people have predicted where we’re going to finish… and that’s fine. The bottom line is that there isn’t much difference between the top and the bottom.
“At the end of the day you finish where you deserve to and that’s how it is. We’re not worrying too much about where we finish, it’s about what we’re producing and if we can build and get our players playing to the best of their potential we feel we can compete every week. If you do that, you just never know.”