Panthers board endorses Ciraldo to coach in 2019

EXCLUSIVE

The pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place.

First Nathan Cleary committed to the Penrith Panthers until 2023, with an official announcement expected at the end of the week.

Now, NRL.com can reveal Cameron Ciraldo will be coach of the club for at least next season after the board recently agreed for the caretaker coach to continue his tenure beyond last week's exit from the finals.

It comes as the Panthers gear up to formally offer Ivan Cleary a three-year deal to return to the club and coach his son from 2021.

But what happens between now and 2021 is expected to be the hottest topic of the summer as conjecture over Ivan Cleary's future returns to the surface.

Cleary, whose Leonay home is no longer for sale, has two more years to run on his contract at the Wests Tigers and has publicly stated he "intends to honour his contract".

If, as the Tigers anticipate, Cleary in the coming weeks or months agrees to a deal with the Panthers from 2021, his intentions may count for very little.

Ivan and Nathan Cleary catch up prior to the Penrith v Wests Tigers round-11 clash at Panthers Stadium.
Ivan and Nathan Cleary catch up prior to the Penrith v Wests Tigers round-11 clash at Panthers Stadium.

The Panthers, who originally believed Cleary could be at the club in 2019, haven't tried to induce the coach to break his contract since the Tigers fired off a legal letter within days of learning of their appetite to lure Cleary back to the Panthers.

There is still a possibility he will end up at Penrith before 2021 - a move that would result in Ciraldo willingly stepping aside for the man who gave him his first crack at coaching.

But a decision on an early exit rests with the Tigers.

Nathan Cleary and Cameron Ciraldo.
Nathan Cleary and Cameron Ciraldo. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

Some at the Tigers are hellbent on ensuring Cleary sees out the final two years of his deal, confident he can still lead the club forward regardless of where his long-term future lies.

"I don't know how many different ways I can say this, but Ivan has a contract here until the end of 2020," chief executive Justin Pascoe said.

Certain Tigers officials believe two years is ample time to come up with a succession plan given there are several NRL clubs with coaches coming off contract at the end of 2019.

However, there is a competing chain of thought. If Cleary accepts a deal with Penrith for 2021, some at the Tigers believe they will have to weigh up whether keeping a departing coach – albeit in two years' time – is in the best interest of the club's long-term aspirations for sustained success.

That could open the door for Cleary to coach Penrith earlier than 2021, but the Tigers hold all the power and won't be railroaded into making a decision to help their western Sydney rivals.

The Tigers were heavily criticised for sacking Jason Taylor just three rounds into last season. It was deemed by many as a rush of blood to appease their off-contract stars. But it was calculated and executed well from start to finish.

Upon reflection, the Tigers showed foresight knowing the best coach available at the time, Cleary, wouldn't be on the market much longer.

If he wasn't going to be Taylor's successor, he would have likely been Des Hasler's at Canterbury later that year.

Former South Sydney premiership-winning coach Michael Maguire is largely considered the best mentor on the open market now.

With uncertainty around the coaching role at Manly, as well as pressure on coaches at several clubs, it's unlikely he will still be available in 2021 to take on a role at the Tigers.

The Tigers could find themselves in a similar predicament in the coming weeks, hence a desire from some to offer Ivan Cleary an extension to see if there is any appetite to remain at the club long term.

If the Tigers try to extend Cleary's deal, it wouldn't be the first time this year the joint venture has discussed extending his contract.

After an impressive opening to the season, the club wanted to begin talks, however Cleary indicated he wanted to wait until season's end so he could focus on the team's campaign.

If Ivan was to return to Penrith, there is still the matter of taking care of the elephant in the room

Those closest to Ivan say he is reluctant to work with Phil Gould as a result of the breakdown in relationship following the Panthers executive general manager's decision to sack him at the end of 2015.

While Gould recently extended his contract with Penrith until the end of 2023, it's expected he will take a step back and lighten his load with the NRL squad to focus on development and pathways if Cleary returned to the club.

Under the set-up at the Panthers, the coach reports to Gould. However it's likely a restructure of the organisation will occur should Cleary come back to finish the job he started in 2012.

As appealing as it would be to link with his son at Penrith, it's hard to ignore the Tigers are a club on the rise.

There's stability at board and management level, membership is on the rise and they are set to record a profit for the first time in the club's history.

And because of the culture the coach has instilled in his 18 months at the club, the team is well equipped to handle the post-Cleary era - even if that is to arrive sooner than they originally anticipated.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.