Ciraldo exclusive: 'I just felt I didn't fit in'
Cameron Ciraldo never wanted to be a coach.
But on Friday morning he found himself sitting inside a meeting room at the Panthers' multi-million dollar headquarters answering questions about his role in the sacking of Anthony Griffin.
That's a fair baptism of fire. As the team bus rolls up to take the Panthers to the airport to play the Gold Coast Titans on Saturday, all everyone is talking about is Phil Gould's brutal assessment of Griffin on The Footy Show on Channel Nine the night before.
And the hospital pass he threw his caretaker coach by revealing that he had twice tried to resign because of Griffin on the eve of his first press conference as an NRL coach.
"I don't see it as a hospital pass," Ciraldo told NRL.com in an exclusive interview.
"I see it as telling the truth. One thing I've told the boys is that I will be honest. When you're honest to players they appreciate it and I know that sometimes it is hard being honest to the media. But I'm not going to sit here and tell lies. When Gus told the truth last night, I had no problem with it."
The truth, that Ciraldo refers to, contrasts what Griffin said on Fox Sports' NRL 360 a day earlier.
Griffin declared he had a good relationship with Ciraldo, a notion that was scoffed at by many at the club.
"We worked together," Ciraldo said.
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"Outside of that, there wasn't much of a relationship. I did my best to support him throughout the 18 months I was assistant coach. Outside of all that I wouldn't say we had a good relationship.
"I just felt like I didn't fit in. I felt like I didn't fit into the way things were. It wasn't how I imagined my role being."
So why is it Griffin, who had no qualms telling the truth about his fractured relationship with Gould, decided against painting an accurate picture when it came to Ciraldo?
Panthers officials believe blaming more than one person would have reflected badly on Griffin.
But the reality was there was so much resentment from the coaching staff towards Griffin that they decided best to pack his stuff in boxes and send it to his manager for him to collect to avoid a potential confrontation if he was to surface at the club.
To Ciraldo's credit, he never baulked from the tough questions.
The interview goes on: Do you think he shared resentment towards you because Gus was talking to you and not him?
"Yeah, possibly," Ciraldo says.
And what about your relationship with the players ... was he threatened by that?
"I'm not sure if they only confided in me instead of him," Ciraldo said.
"Your role as assistant coach, no matter what club you're at, is to help players no matter what the situation around you is. Some will be sad and some will be happy – they come to you with all sorts of different things.
"The role of the assistant coach is to help them and relay that information to the coach. I'm happy I did that. I can't speak for how he felt about it."
Ciraldo even approached Griffin, paranoid about a building perception that he was trying to sabotage the coach.
"I actually went up to him and asked him if he thought I was undermining him," Ciraldo told NRL.com.
"He said he didn't."
Ciraldo even attempted to reach out to Griffin following his sacking on Monday.
"I sent him a message but I haven't heard back."
The 33-year-old is one of the youngest coaches in the game's history.
"Yeah, but I'm still not convinced I want to be a coach," he said.
Towards the end of his playing career, Ciraldo applied to be a firefighter. Twice he was rejected - like his attempts to resign from Penrith.
The irony in all this is that his time as an NRL coach could potentially come to an end in two months because of the man that gave him his first opportunity – Ivan Cleary.
"I played a couple of games in 2013 and then at about round six Ivan called me into his office," Ciraldo recalled of his final season in the NRL.
"He said 'what are you thinking about doing next year?'. I told him I'd applied for the fire brigade. He told me 'sorry, we're not going to re-sign you next year but I think you've got a good future as a coach or someone we'd like working at the club'."
Now it appears Ciraldo may be keeping the seat warm for Cleary to return and finish what he started in 2012.
"Yeah I would love to work with him," Ciraldo said.
"Ivan is a really good person before he is a really good coach. We have a really good relationship so I'd have no hesitation working with him again. I have a great amount of respect for him."
He also has great respect for his son, the innocent victim in all this, Nathan Cleary.
The 20-year-old has had to try and cope with the sacking of his coach and the abuse levelled at his father for contemplating leaving the Wests Tigers while also dealing with suggestions from the public that conjecture over his future was the root of the problem.
But Ciraldo, who worked in the club's welfare department before joining the football staff, shares a very close bond with the Penrith No.7 and has been regularly checking in to make sure he is coping.
"It wouldn't be easy, not at all," Ciraldo said.
"Not with some of the stories that have been out there. I couldn't rap him more for the way he has handled himself this week. If you look at Nathan every day you wouldn't realise there's anything going on. He's just the same person every day. Whether he's played Origin, whether he's injured or whether it's been this week, he's been the same every day.
"It's a credit to him, and his father is very similar. I've grabbed Nathan a few times this week to make sure he's alright. He's very smart, Nathan. He's got off social media, he's stopped reading things and he's just focused back on football. At 20 years old it's remarkable how mature he is."
Where to now for the Panthers
The relentless speculation about Ivan Cleary's potential return to Penrith will continue in the background, but Ciraldo has a job to do.
He fronted the players on Tuesday morning, the day after Griffin's sacking. He handled it in typical Ciraldo fashion.
No fuss, no hype. Just time to get on with the task at hand.
The rugby league world is watching on with interest to see how Ciraldo handles the task of taking a team that Gould believes was nowhere near a premiership, towards a potential premiership.
But Ciraldo insists he's just a small piece in the puzzle and his future is the least of his concerns as they prepare to take on the Titans on Saturday
"I didn't want to make it about me and make a big speech," he said of his first meeting with the players.
"I just told them you're going to get total honesty from me and Wal [assistant coach Peter Wallace]. I told them our goal for the next eight weeks is to make sure we're the best-prepared team in the comp.
"In all honesty, it's not about me or my future. I'm not in a rush to be in this position. I always thought if I got into coaching I'd coach the kids' [of which he has five] footy teams or maybe SG Ball one day with mates. It's all happened really quickly and I didn't foresee that happening. I don't see this as an audition. No one has ever said do you want to do this next year. It hasn't even been a conversation."
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Penrith started the year well but there have been lingering issues they haven't been able to address.
One is their soft defence at stages in the match, the other is an inability to start matches well despite showing they have the mental toughness to claw their way back.
Ciraldo is expected to give his players the attacking freedom to back their ability, but it is hoped some clarity in and around match-day preparations will help the Panthers overcome their first-half jitters.
"We'd like to think a couple of the slight changes we've made will hopefully give us a bit more energy and focus at the start of the game," Ciraldo said.
"At the end of the day, it's up to the players starting the game [who] are responsible for how the team starts. If they can't get that done we might have to find someone else to start the game. I want them to back themselves in attack. And I'd like to see them have a bit more hunger in defence."
Ciraldo has his helpers. Gould will no doubt provide assistance, so too club legend Greg Alexander. But also in his corner is the recently retired Wallace, who a couple of months ago was club captain.
"I've never seen anyone transform from playing into work life so well," Ciraldo said of Wallace.
"He retired on Friday and by Monday he was working from 7am to 5pm. Just an incredible work ethic. Me and him have a lot of similar philosophies on how we think the game should be played. He also has great respect amongst the players. He's the older brother to those blokes who he has helped mentor over the years."
It's been a rapid rise for Ciraldo, but at the core of every role he has taken with the club has been a desire to improve the football team he stopped playing with five years ago.
He doesn't know if this is even the best thing for him, but if it's the best thing for Penrith he is on the bus.
"The last five years have gone that quick I haven't had time to sit down and think about 'is this exactly what I want to do with my life'," he said.
"I've had that many different job titles in this club since I retired, the only focus I've had is doing what's best for the club. I haven't had time to think about me. My focus hasn't changed. It's still to help the club be successful."