Rugby league: Michael Burgess – Ivan Cleary’s NRL success with Penrith Panthers should haunt New Zealand Warriors

Early last week, Penrith chief executive Brian Fletcher said coach Ivan Cleary would have a job for life.

After their grand final win over South Sydney, Fletcher was unequivocal.

“I can’t ever see Ivan Cleary leaving the place,” said Fletcher.

“He’s here for as long as he wants to be here.”

In the wake of their epic premiership victory, their first since 2003, it could have been seen as an emotional reaction.

But it wasn’t.

On an open market, the 50-year-old Cleary would be one of the most in demand NRL coaches, because of his ability to not just win games, but build a club.

With a few exceptions, his Panthers’ squad are not a team of stars, especially compared with the Storm and Roosters.

All but three of their 17-man grand final team made their NRL debut at the Panthers and most have been playing together since teenagers.

With their formidable nursery, it’s the Penrith way, but it’s not easy and takes a unique skill set to first develop, then persevere with local products.

But that’s Cleary’s forte and his Sydney success cuts deep for the Warriors fanbase.

He was the coach that got away, but also the one that could have been brought back, in one of the biggest turning points of the last decade.

It’s a missed opportunity that will haunt the club, at least until they achieve enjoy some success again.

Cleary’s stint at Mt Smart from 2006-2011 was a golden period, especially compared with the recent struggles. They reached the finals fours times, highlighted by the 2008 preliminary final and the 2011 grand final.

There were regular season finishes of fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth and 10 playoff games across six years, with a team based around a strong local core.

The Warriors have never been the same since Cleary left, and the reluctance to offer him a longer deal in 2011 has been well documented, even if it remains mystifying in hindsight.

But what is less understood – and often forgotten – is that the Warriors missed a chance to bring Cleary back in 2016, after Andrew McFadden had been sacked as head coach.

Cleary had been acclaimed as the 2014 Dally M coach of the year, after taking Penrith to the preliminary final, before being sacked by Phil Gould in 2015 (Fletcher admitted this week that decision was a mistake).

So he was back on the market.

“I want to coach again,” Cleary told the Herald at the time. “I consider myself a career coach and this year has been my first season out of the NRL in the last 25 years [as a player or coach].”

Cleary also re-iterated his strong bond with the Auckland club.

“I loved my time at the Warriors,” said Cleary. “It was the start of everything for me and I left with a heavy heart. There was some talk around at the time that I was leaving to go home but that wasn’t the case at all. Moving to Penrith was completely the other side of Sydney for me.”

It was a unique situation, as Cleary was available and wanted the job, sensing some unfinished business.

Across their history the club has chased big names like Craig Bellamy and Wayne Bennett, but those pursuits never progressed very far.

But in August 2016 the Warriors had Cleary at their fingertips, but chose to ignore his proven credentials, opting instead for Stephen Kearney.

Maybe they didn’t want to go back, and it would have been a difficult initial sell, for a fanbase that were desperate for a fresh start.

But it’s hard not to wonder where the Warriors would be now.

Cleary spent a decade at Mt Smart, including his time as a player and assistant coach and is a Mt Rushmore type figure, alongside Stacey Jones, Simon Mannering and Shaun Johnson, but it’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to extend his legacy.

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