In the lead-up to Penrith's clash with the Wests Tigers on Friday, NRL.com chief reporter Michael Chammas reveals how Penrith could have signed Wayne Bennett before choosing Ivan Cleary in the first of a two-part investigation into the NRL's unprecedented off-season coaching shake-up.
Part two of the special investigation, which will be published on Monday, will focus on Bennett's departure from Brisbane and the ramifications of the coaching swap between the seven-time premiership-winning mentor and South Sydney's Anthony Seibold.
In the weeks leading up to Anthony Griffin's sacking at the Penrith Panthers, Phil Gould set off on a secret mission to secure an unlikely alliance that would have forged the greatest power couple in the history of the sport.
Somewhere between Griffin offering to fall on his sword after the club's mid-season review, and his axing on the eve of the finals a few weeks later, two clandestine meetings would trigger one of the sport’s most dramatic contract sagas.
The first is well known. That Panthers chairman Dave O'Neill had a coffee with then Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary that would culminate in the return to his old club to coach his son.
The other has remained secret.
Gould, unbeknown to the club's hierarchy, put his long-standing rivalry with Bennett aside to reach a verbal agreement to turn Penrith into Wayne's World.
Benny and Gus. The master and the maestro.
"Gus came to me after he'd reached an understanding with Bennett and said to me we can have him if we want him," O'Neill told NRL.com.
The details were vague, because Bennett – who had given up hope of the Broncos agreeing to allow him to coach in 2020 – was still contracted to the club for 2019 and had every intention of honouring that deal unless he was sacked.
So Gould, having reached an understanding with Bennett that at some point in the next 12 months he would take over from caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo, took the information to the chairman.
Gould didn't know it, but there was a reason for the chairman's lack of excitement in his Bennett proposal.
That reason was Cleary.
Cleary has always maintained, publicly and privately, he had not agreed to return to the Panthers – yet the chairman had enough confidence to turn down the services of one W.Bennett.
"From a club's perspective Bennett would have been a great choice – there's no doubting his reputation as a coach," O’Neill said.
"But for us, our thinking was looking at the long-term future of the club. Since then those thoughts have been reflected in the five-year deal we offered Ivan."
What Gould didn't know was O'Neill and Cleary had already met, hence the directive from certain Panthers directors not to push forward with his plans for the seven-time premiership-winning coach.
Cleary, who agreed to the meeting with the belief it would be about the future of his son, maintains only a seed was planted despite a perception that a handshake agreement had been reached.
Tigers in disbelief
The night Anthony Griffin was sacked by the Panthers, the phones of Wests Tigers chief executive Justin Pascoe and chair Marina Go rang hot.
Word spread like wildfire their coach was Penrith bound. It's important to note the close friendship between Pascoe and Cleary in all this. They travelled together on family holidays and there was no bigger supporter of Cleary taking over from Jason Taylor than the CEO.
Pascoe, who worked with Cleary at the Panthers, knew a lot of things about the coach's past – including his fractured relationship with Gould and Penrith after he sacked him at the end of 2015.
Gus came to me after he’d reached an understanding with Bennett and said to me we can have him if we want him.Panthers chairman Dave O'Neill
It's why the club initially scoffed at talk he was heading back there, albeit conceding it was a smart play from the Panthers to keep Nathan Cleary at the club.
What they didn't know is Cleary had been given assurances that if he jumped ship, Gould would have reduced involvement with the NRL team in a restructure of the football department.
Ivan fronted certain members of the club's board and executive team the day after Griffin's sacking – the same day NRL.com reported Cleary had been offered a long-term deal by the Panthers.
He denied there was an offer on the table. He reiterated his love for the Wests Tigers and his commitment to them, but he also admitted the temptation was real. He asked the club to allow him the opportunity to consider the option, but he was met with a firm no.
That day he also fronted his players at training. He called the club's senior leadership group into a meeting to inform them of Penrith's interest, which was becoming increasingly apparent that it was mutual.
"Some players had the shits, some players wanted to kill him, some players didn't care – everyone handles it differently. I didn't care," Robbie Farah said.
"As a playing group, there was a bit of angst – especially for the players that came here on long-term deals to play under Ivan. Russell [Packer], Benny [Matulino], Josh Reynolds, Moses Mbye … but for me I was just happy to be here."
The player it upset the most was Packer. He stood up in the leadership meeting and gave Cleary a piece of his mind. He spoke about respect, or a lack thereof, as he struggled to deal with the reality of what was about to unfold.
Over the course of the next 24 hours, Ivan would address the team as a group and with certain individuals to try and hold onto the flicker of hope that was finals football.
But the trust and unity he had built through his honesty and humility in his 18 months at the club began to erode rapidly.
"I sat in his office and he gave me his version of things," Farah said.
"But I knew then that deep down he wanted to go. He was telling me he wanted to honour his contract and that he was here, but I'm not stupid. Just hearing him talk, I knew. I walked out and said to the boys 'he's gone'. And I don't begrudge him at all. I'll be forever in debt to him for bringing me back to the club.
"But once it all came out in the media, I don't think he could have stayed. The boys had lost that … it's hard to play for a coach when you don't know what their intentions are or whether they are fully committed. You might start to think 'why should I go out and put my body on the line for this bloke if he doesn't want to be here'. I think once it all came out there was a point of no return. He had to go."
A few days later, Cleary was photographed talking to O'Neill in separate boxes on the corporate level of ANZ Stadium during a Panthers match.
Despite his existing relationship with Cleary, Pascoe wasn't going to allow his friendship to compromise his job and raised his concerns with the photo in a group meeting.
Onlookers were stunned when an irate Pascoe blew up at Cleary in an expletive-laden outburst that questioned how he could be put in such a position and why he hadn't apologised for it.
Nathan Cleary and the warning signs
The Wests Tigers started the 2018 season winning five of their first six games – and not just any games, beating the Storm twice and the Roosters once in an impressive opening to Cleary's first full season in charge.
It looked as though the club's seven-year finals drought was about to end, largely thanks to the steel and discipline instilled by Cleary.
So the board, having already secured the coach until the end of 2020, asked Pascoe to approach Cleary about the prospect of an extension.
At first Cleary seemed keen, but that's when his incredible bond with his son began to affect his thought process.
Halfway through the year, with pressure mounting on Nathan to make a decision, he told his dad "I really don't want to leave without delivering something I could be proud of to Penrith".
A couple of months after the Tigers put forward their desire to extend Ivan's tenure, the club moved to proceed with negotiations with his manager.
But Ivan parked the bus.
He informed the club of his desire to wait so he could focus on the season. Very little was thought of it at the time, but people at the club look back at that moment as the first real sign of what would soon unfold.
Cleary never shied away from his desire to coach his son. To the point where Tigers officials were confident of securing Nathan's services for 2020 and beyond.
But there was concern for how open Cleary was about linking with Nathan at the Tigers, which prompted the club to request he stopped publicly talking about it in fear of the impact it was having on halfback Luke Brooks.
"Ivan started talking publicly about wanting to coach his son," Go said.
"I was concerned, not because I thought he would leave, but I was worried for Luke Brooks. He had the same number on his back as his son, wouldn't you be worried? I went out of my way, I was constantly telling him how valued he was."
In fairness to Cleary, who was the first coach to get the best out of Brooks, Nathan was never viewed as a replacement for him, but as a halves partner.
Yet the speculation of son linking with father at the Tigers was rife.
"I never thought that [Nathan was coming]," Benji Marshall said.
"I've got no doubt from talking to Ivan that he took the decision out of Nathan's hands to have to leave Penrith to be coached by his dad. Ivan made that decision, and wore all the criticism that came with it, so Nathan could just play footy and be where he wanted to be with his mates where he started his footy. I get it.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Storm
"I could see Ivan's hunger and desire to want to coach his son – so he took that decision out of Nathan's hands. Footy is a business, man. At the end of the day, whoever is in that position – and I'll say it to players and coaches – whatever is the best opportunity for you, you have to do. It might feel like people are going to be angry with your decision but it's your life man. So for Ivan, that's up to him. That's his life, that's his decision."
Perhaps the Tigers were justified in their confidence Nathan would adopt Tiger Town as his new home.
After all, things at Penrith under Griffin weren't as good as their top-four position suggested. Players were disgruntled, staff were unhappy. Reviews were being undertaken.
And when he was spotted inside the dressing room before full-time of the club's humiliating 50-18 loss to the Broncos in round 19, they knew he'd given up.
That was the moment Penrith changed their minds about waiting until the end of the season to pull the trigger. The fact he didn't return with the team the next day in favour of a day at the races with his friends only justified their concerns.
Nathan denies he only re-signed because he'd been given assurances his father was going to be coach.
"I had no idea what Nathan was doing when I met with Ivan," O'Neill said.
"That was with Gus and I was comfortable that the contract negotiations were in his capable hands. At that stage I could see cracks surfacing throughout the football organisation. I was fearful that it would escalate into an untenable situation, so I reacted."
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But perhaps of more comfort to the young halfback was not so much who would be the new coach, but that the old one was no longer there.
"I was probably getting a little bit worried at the stages when there was confusion and people were starting to butt heads," Nathan Cleary told NRL.com after extending his deal at Penrith.
"But the back end of the year I have nothing but praise for the way things were. I really loved it and enjoyed it. The coaching staff was on the same page. They were making training fun.
"And the boys, we were always tight even when everything was going on, but we were all happy being around each other. It's got nothing to do with my old man. I was happy to make the decision by myself. What happens in the future with dad is out of my control."
The Wests Tigers v Penrith Panthers feud
Adding fuel to the fire was the tension between the Tigers and Panthers.
It goes back to Cleary being sacked, Pascoe's exit from the club as well as angst from the Wests Tigers over comments from Panthers Group CEO Brian Fletcher when he questioned why Nathan would want to go to a club "that might not be a chance of winning a comp".
Couple this with a desire from the Tigers to show the rugby league fraternity that they weren't a club to be bullied, and you're left with some pretty delicate negotiations.
Privately, the club's hierarchy made a pact to insist Cleary would be forced to honour his deal.
It was aimed to keep their fans from panicking, but Cleary was also used as an asset by the Tigers to leverage as much out of Penrith as possible, whether that be financially or in the form of talent.
"As a club we decided to take a position and we wanted our fans to feel solid," Go said.
"We couldn't tell them Ivan was going unless he was going immediately. We kept saying he was going nowhere even though we knew he was probably going.
"Had we have said Ivan was leaving and then started looking for a new coach, it would have been an absolute disaster for us."
There was still this disbelief among Tigers officials with how the Cleary saga was unfolding. It was clear the negotiations were affecting the normally unflappable coach.
I could see Ivan’s hunger and desire to want to coach his son.Benji Marshall
As one Tigers insider put it: "It was like he had taken some illicit drug for the first time and was in zombie land."
They could understand the temptation – who wouldn't be tempted by an opportunity to almost double your income on an extended term worth in excess of $5 million with the opportunity to coach your son, his friends and in the area in which you raised your kids?
What they couldn't understand was the manner in which he was seduced by the temptation.
"The way it was handled – I'm sure if you ask Ivan he will look back and have a few regrets and it probably could have been handled better on his end," Farah said.
"You could tell he was upset by it too. He wasn't enjoying what he was doing to the club. I can understand why the fans turned on him saying 'Ivan's a monster, the bus broke down' and all that crap. But it's hard when there’s family involved.
"People take that human and emotional side out of it when you're a fan. He was a bit emotional too. I know for a fact it was hard for him. He is a genuine man, and he's a decent man and I think deep down he would have felt that he let us down.
"I'm still good friends with Ivan. I sent him a text after Madge put us through his army camp in pre-season and said 'f--- you'. I said you made me do another pre-season and you bloody left. He sent myself and Benji a text after round one and said well played old boys – age shall not weary them. He's a champion fella. Hopefully we'll catch with him for a beer in the sheds after we beat them in round four."
Bennett or Maguire
Publicly, the Tigers flexed their muscles. But behind closed doors they realised Cleary's position had become untenable and began compiling a shortlist of candidates to replace him.
The directive from the top was Cleary wouldn't be allowed to leave until they had a better replacement, despite the rattled coach declaring he "intended" to honour his contract in his first media conference following revelations he could be headed to Penrith.
It's then Pascoe and football manager Kelly Egan came up with the shortlist of Queensland coach Kevin Walters, former Manly mentor Trent Barrett, ex-Melbourne assistant turned Roosters assistant Adam O'Brien, Maguire and Bennett.
It didn't take long to narrow it down to two men – two premiership winners.
Bennett's manager, George Mimis, also happens to represent Ivan. He knew exactly what was required to allow Ivan to sign with Penrith, and had the power to do something about it.
He lined up for the club to speak with Bennett, with Pascoe speaking to the Broncos coach on the phone and later in person in Brisbane.
The club, and rightly so given their obligation to protect Maguire as the current coach, will tell you it was always a race between two.
But if Bennett could or was willing to link with the Tigers in 2019, the job would have been his.
Some players wanted to kill him, some players didn’t care - everyone handles it differently. I didn’t care.Robbie Farah
The Tigers, mindful of how they were in a terrible position during the 'big four' negotiations involving Brooks, Aaron Woods, Mitchell Moses and James Tedesco a couple of years ago, were wary about being used.
From the outset Bennett insisted he didn't want to leave the Broncos in 2019 unless he was pushed. He didn't want to let his players, or his staff down
But the Tigers needed an answer within 10 days and put a deadline on Bennett.
"I spoke to him, but I never thought Wayne was going to come here," Marshall said.
"Just off the back of that I knew he wanted to honour his contract at Brisbane and he wanted to be kicked out of that job before he left it. I didn't think he was coming."
In the meantime, Pascoe and Egan booked a flight to Auckland on a secret mission to meet Maguire, who was coaching New Zealand.
Their cover was blown instantly when they arrived at the gate at Sydney airport alongside the Tongan Test team.
That night they met Maguire on a hit-and-run mission. Needless to say they were impressed.
Most coaches, when interviewing for a job will tell you it will take a couple of seasons to build their roster. It's generally a way of protecting themselves if things go wrong in the early years.
Maguire made no such excuses, only stating an intention to win. It became apparent he had what it took to eat away at the club's perceived soft underbelly, and do so with the roster he was given.
South Sydney’s 2014 premiership-winning coach wanted to find a club with the capabilities to assist him in getting results. It’s the reason he never accepted the job that was his before Des Hasler at Manly.
Once the deadline set on Bennett had expired, the Tigers rang Mimis and told him they would be moving on.
Despite the plea for more time, the Tigers didn't flinch. The next phone call was to Maguire.
How the deal was done
Before the Tigers finalised their deal with Maguire, Cleary informed the club of his decision to sign with Penrith from 2021 – as he promised he would.
At the request of the Tigers, Cleary agreed not to go public with the announcement until they had sorted out the deal with Maguire, which would free Cleary to link with the Panthers immediately.
The Tigers told Penrith that Ivan wouldn't be released without compensation. To the coach's credit, he didn't feel right about leaving without paying for the damage he'd caused.
It's why he agreed to sacrifice his final month's pay at the Tigers (understood to be around $50,000), and also take a pay cut from his salary at the Panthers to provide part of the $250,000 compensation deal facilitated by the club. "I never lost a minute’s sleep over it," O'Neill said.
"The path we headed down is in the best long-term interest of our footy club. I had a good relationship with Justin and Marina. It wasn't about an attack on the Tigers. It was a business decision.
"I wasn't proud of some of the media coverage but it's my job as chairman to act in the best of our club and I believed, and still do, that having Ivan Cleary as our head coach was the best way to achieve long-term goals. The most exciting thing for me is the harmony in the club.
"It's been two years since I've seen that. The proof will be in the pudding whether it was the right decision to bring Ivan back. We'll be judged on that. I'll be judged on that. As I should be."
Maguire agreed to the deal while coaching the Kiwis in England.
Cleary then sent a text message to his players, one that had to be edited and approved by the Tigers, to let them know he was jumping off the bus.
"G'day boys. I hope this finds you well and enjoying your time off. I was writing to you in the hope of beating the press.. to let you know that I will no longer be your coach at Wests Tigers.
"This is an extremely uncomfortable situation for me as I have genuine fondness for the club, and I have loved coaching you all.. I understand that this situation has caused some pain for people that I care about, along with putting the club in an awkward situation... I do not feel good about this.
"I would have preferred to do this in person but time and circumstances have made that impossible.I hope we meet again soon and I wish you all the very best in the future. You have my number and I am always open for a chat if you wish. Iv."