Build from within!
That was the philosophy Ivan Cleary adopted when he first took charge of Penrith in 2012 and the club’s 30-year recipe for success has delivered the Panthers a grand final berth against Melbourne Storm on Sunday night.
In Cleary’s first season at Penrith, Luke Lewis, Michael Jennings, Lachlan Coote, Sam McKendry and Tim Grant were the only local juniors considered to be regular members of the Panthers team.
Fast forward to 2020 and the Panthers side playing in the club’s first grand final for 17 years boasts 13 players who made their NRL debuts at Penrith, including Cleary’s son Nathan, who will celebrate his 100th appearance in the premiership decider.
It was a formula that helped the Panthers to premiership success in 1991 against Canberra and in 2003 against Sydney Roosters.
Cleary handed debuts to Josh Mansour in 2012 and Isaah Yeo in 2015 before being sacked and since returning to the Panthers last year he has introduced the likes of Brian To’o, Liam Martin, Stephen Crichton and Brent Naden to the NRL.
Match: Panthers v Storm
Grand Final -
Venue: Stadium Australia, Sydney
Others like Jarome Luai, Tyrone May, Dylan Edwards and Moses Leota were on their way to NRL honours before Cleary was shown the door and made their debuts under Anthony Griffin.
It’s why Cleary says his work at Penrith this time is a “refurbishment” of the team rather than a re-build, and his knowledge of the talent coming through the ranks was why he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to return, despite being contracted to Wests Tigers.
Panthers grand final media conference
“When I first came to the club at the end of 2011, it was just lay it down and build from the bottom,” Cleary said at his last media conference before the grand final with Yeo and captain James Tamou.
“The club's mantra has been to build from within and there has been a lot of work, effort and money to get that going. Every club is different. We had that junior nursery at Penrith which not every club had. And that is just the way the club decided to go.”
The Panthers team which won the club’s inaugural premiership against a star-studded Raiders outfit in 1991 was also full of local talent, including Brad Fittler, Greg Alexander, Mark Geyer, John Cartwright and Brad Izzard.
The club adopted the same formula to win the 2003 grand final against the Roosters, with the likes of Lewis, Luke Rooney, Craig Gower, Tony Puletua and Trent Waterhouse being Penrith juniors.
“Any successful Panthers team of the past has had a lot of local juniors in there or players who have come through the system so that's the model we went for,” Cleary said.
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“Back in 2012, in my first year, I think there were five guys in the top squad that have come through the system. We wanted the opposite, with close to 80 per cent.
“If you look now most of the team have debuted in the Panthers system and I have been fortunate enough to pick up guys like Jimmy [Tamou], Zane [Tetevano] and Api [Koroisau] to help that mix.
“We've got a good thing going, it's just a matter of sticking with that and hopefully we have success.”
Cleary: The big stage won't worry Nathan
Tamou, Tetevano and Koroisau are the only members of the Penrith squad to have previously played in a grand final and the young Panthers players will draw on their experience against a Storm outfit playing their fourth premiership decider in five years and ninth since 2006.
However, seven of the team were members of the club’s Under-20s team which won the 2015 National Youth Competition grand final under the coaching of Cleary’s assistant Cameron Ciraldo, who has developed the Panthers into the best defensive team in the NRL this season.
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“All those experiences can’t hurt,” Cleary said. “A grand final regardless of what competition you are playing in is an elevation from the average game, particularly at NYC level when back in those days you were part of the big day.
“But we're more just trying to focus on the football itself and not so much the occasion. As long as we keep an eye on what got us here in the first place, we'll be right on Sunday.”
Cleary was coy on whether he would stick with playmaker Tyrone May at right centre after making a shock selection change before kick-off or if Naden would regain his position after being named there.
The Panthers have every member of their squad fit to play and will be boosted by the return of strike forward Viliame Kikau from suspension.
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