Martin Lang believes Penrith will lay claim to being the best team in the club’s history if Nathan and Ivan Cleary can join him and his dad, John, as the only father-son combination to win a grand final together.
John Lang was coach and Martin was a member of the Panthers team which achieved premiership glory in 2003 – a feat the Clearys are now trying to emulate in Sunday night’s grand final against Melbourne at ANZ Stadium.
The Langs are the only father-son pairing to win a premiership and there are few other examples in Australian sport of a parent and sibling winning a championship or grand final together at the elite level.
Among them are:
· Andrew and Lindsay Gaze (1993 and 1997 NBL championship)
· Anthony and Tony Mundine (three-time boxing world champion)
· Jess and Miriam Fox (2012 and 2016 Olympic medal-winning slalom canoeist)
· Chloe and Daniel Esposito (2016 Olympic modern pentathlon gold medal winner)
Match: Panthers v Storm
Grand Final -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney
“It was a very special feeling but not one that I gave a lot of thought to at the time,” Martin Lang said of winning the 2003 grand final with his father John. "I am sure my father was probably the same at the time when it came to approaching that week.”
John Lang had coached Martin from 1996 when the prop joined him at Cronulla and they had won a minor premiership together in 1999 but the Sharks fell short of the grand final.
Like Nathan Cleary, Martin was already playing for Penrith in 2002 when his father took over as coach.
Then there were two
The pair won the grand final against Sydney Roosters in their second season together at the Panthers.
By coincidence, this is the second year Ivan Cleary has had charge of Nathan, after leaving Wests Tigers at the end of the 2018 season for the opportunity to coach his son, and they are now one win away from celebrating a premiership after 17 consecutive victories leading into the grand final.
“I would say their relationship as coach and player is a very different dynamic to what my father and mine was,” Lang said.
“Nathan is their chief playmaker and works probably far more closely with Ivan than I did with my father. My role was very limited when it came to tactics and what not. I had a job to do and I tried to do it on a consistent basis.
“They were coming under some heavy attack at the beginning of last year, but Ivan said everyone needed to be patient and look what has happened this year.
“If they win the grand final they will go down as Penrith’s best team ever. There is no doubt about that. To win 18 games straight, it has been an unbelievable season to show that sort of consistency.”
Two sides with a lot in common
John Lang sees greater similarities between the current Panthers team and his 2003 premiership-winning team than the fact both coaches had a son playing.
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“I reckon your halfback, five-eighth, fullback and hooker have got to be pretty good to win a grand final,” Lang said.
“We had Rhys Wesser at fullback, Craig Gower and Preston Campbell in the halves and Luke Priddis at hooker.
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“Rhys scored 25 tries that year so he had a fair season, Gowie and Preston had a good years and there are similarities between young Cleary and [Jarome] Luai in that they have a brilliant one and a more rock-solid one in the halves. Luai is the same as Preston in that he [can] make something out of nothing.
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“Priddo probably had the best game of anyone I have ever seen in a grand final and Api Koroisau is a gun little hooker. I reckon the Panthers will play their best footy in the grand final and they will have to against Melbourne."
Lang plans to watch the grand final at home and will be cheering for Penrith, as will Martin, who plans to phone his father at halftime because he gets frustrated by his use of the rewind and fast-forward button on the television remote to analyse games.
“I never really thought about it as a father-and-son thing,” John said. “You are just trying to succeed so you are not thinking it would be great to win a premiership with your son.
“You just want to win a frigging premiership. To do it with your son is a nice little add on. It is a good memory for myself, Martin and our family. His kids look it up on YouTube and that sort of stuff.”
Appreciating rare achievement takes time
Andrew Gaze said winning an NBL championship with his father Lindsay as “emotional” but described their relationship as player and coach as similar to that of Martin and John Lang.
Gaze was coached by Lindsay in each of his 22 NBL seasons with the Melbourne Tigers and at the first of his five Olympic Games with the Boomers in 1984.
The former San Antonio Spurs star won NBL titles with his father in 1993 and 1997 but said it meant more later than at the time.
“I am incredibly grateful to be able to look back and recall what took place, and have a far greater appreciation for that father-son relationship during that period of time than what it was at the actual time,” Gaze told NRL.com
“It’s a unique privilege but at the time you have got the delineation between the player-coach, father-son relationships. It resonates and means a hell of a lot more once you are done than it did at the time.
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“For me, it wasn’t until I finished, went away and had my own kids that you get an understanding of that time you are able to spend with your dad, sharing that experience in elite level sport and being able to fulfil a goal like winning a championship.”
However, Gaze recalled how pleased he felt for his dad to coach a championship-winning team, as well as for himself.
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“In 1993 it was very emotional, and I guess it was that realisation of what you have achieved and that lifelong ambition coming to fruition and you have great joy and excitement for the achievement of your father as well as your own achievement.
“You are extremely happy for their success as well as your own success so it is a very unique type of emotion that you go through and it makes for a really special occasion.”
Having dad in his corner was a 'crazy feeling'
After quitting St George Illawarra and the NRL in 2000 to take up boxing, Mundine was trained by his father, Tony, a former Commonwealth boxing champion and the only Australian to fight professionally in four weight divisions.
Tony Mundine was in Anthony’s corner when he beat Danny Green at the Sydney Football Stadium in Australia’s biggest fight and won the WBA super middle-weight and IBO middle-weight belts.
“My dad’s career definitely motivated me to want to achieve success. I knew it was in my bloodlines, even though I didn’t box at a young age,” Mundine said.
“I wanted to succeed in my chosen sport, which was rugby league. Then I obviously had a second dream of becoming champion of the world and to have my dad in my corner and part of the journey to win that championship was a crazy feeling.
“Boxing is probably the hardest sport in that you have got to have dedication, you have to make sacrifices and live a certain lifestyle to achieve the optimum level.
“Obviously you have to spend a lot of time together, especially in camps. Obviously my dad was at the forefront of that so there is definitely a lot of time, a lot of devotion and a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
The former NSW Origin star played against Ivan Cleary before turning to boxing and said the former Manly, North Sydney, Roosters and Warriors fullback was a different type of player to Nathan.
“I think Nathan is more of a general and one of the best halves of today. He has probably got it over his father in terms of talent but what Ivan is showing now is that he has got the brains to coach a team with talent to the championship game.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.