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The secret superstitions that keep Cleary one cool cat

So you thought you knew Ivan Cleary ... and wondered how he stayed so calm and laidback all the time?

In the 119 games James Maloney was coached by Cleary at the Warriors and then at the Panthers, he told that he only saw "maybe two little blow-ups".

"Nothing sort of seems to faze him. From my earlier days at the Warriors with him he was very similar to six years later at Penrith," Maloney said. "He doesn't change much from year to year."

But there are plenty of jitters underneath, believe me.

Cleary is actually rugby league's version of tennis champion Bjorn Borg, who never shaved from day one of Wimbledon until his final match.

Considering he won the All England Club men's singles five times in a row, that's a lot of unused shaving cream left in his hotel bathroom.

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Cleary's long locks at present are not some random wish to give former Manly Sea Eagles teammate Des Hasler a run for his money in the "which coach has the most luscious pelt?" stakes.

It all stems from Cleary's superstitious nature – then add in the fact that with the second NRL player lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he can't get to a barber.

"It started like that ... but now it's become a superstition. I can't get it cut now anyway but it's been with me for four months and I don't want it cut," Cleary told

"I'm very superstitious, extremely."

Are you sure I'm speaking with the right Ivan Cleary? Hocus pocus doesn't seem to fit in with the public persona of cool and collected Panther.

"Well I've got a few different things going on ... I've got a watch I wear on game day that actually stopped working about two months ago. But I'm not going to touch it – until we lose," Cleary said.

"I'll just be asking everyone the time on Sunday."

Timing concerns aside, where does that rigid Cleary exterior of an almost Mount Rushmore quality come from?

He said parents Betty and Bruce were very level-headed and he has two great older brothers in Stuart and Ash.

"I'm the youngest so maybe you see and absorb more when you're the last one. I can't really explain it too much because my brothers are a little more fiery than me.

"Maybe I was just bashed into submission so often that I've learnt to just accept things and move on."

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That trait of observation before action – letting things unfold before stepping in – is something Maloney picked up on.

"One thing I really liked about him is that a lot of coaches try to get players to play like robots – do this now, do that then," Maloney said.

"One of Ivan's strengths is that he lets players just play and use their natural ability. He has a real understanding that not everything in football is black and white.

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"You can't give a definitive answer of 'always do this in this situation'. There are elements of football that are just instinctive. I enjoyed my time with him for that.

"I came to him in 2011 and had gone from Melbourne under 'Bellyache' [Craig Bellamy], which was very structured – and that had its good points too – but at the Warriors they played a more loose, creative style."

Cleary's ability to go with the flow was also there, when he was unexpectedly sacked from Penrith in October 2015 for being "tired, needing a break" by then general manager Phil Gould.

"When that happened I knew I wasn't like that. I also knew I wasn't finished or anything like that.

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"I was lucky I had some runs on the board before that, unlike other young coaches who get the sack and you don't see them again.

"Coaching is what it is. The good and the bad of the job are probably the reasons we love doing it."

Cleary has many times stated there was no major row with Gould in 2015. He says Gould rightly has several fingerprints on Penrith's passage to the 2020 grand final even though he's left the club.

"He certainly does. Look, Gus has had a huge say in what our club is today, as have so many other people who have worked tirelessly over many years like him," Cleary said.

"We are a development club and that takes a lot of work and a lot of time laying the foundation. The success of this year – and a lot more we want to create – you just don't get without Gus."

So grace under fire is definitely a Cleary thing. His attitude to pressure is as casual as his smile.

But surely the Panthers' 17-year wait for a grand final, winning the minor premiership and the string of 17 victories is far more pressure than the Warriors coming from sixth into the 2011 decider as underdogs to the second-placed Sea Eagles?

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"No, I don't feel that. I feel more pressure when I'm at the other end of the spectrum when you're losing and not performing," Cleary said.

"Obviously there's expectation now but I'm not feeling any extra burden or pressure."

... Apart from sourcing a hairdresser and watch repairer some time soon ...

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