The softer side of hard marker Cleary

”If you do a good job for him, he’ll respect you forever”: Penrith’s taciturn coach Ivan Cleary lets his guard down at a club fan day. Photo: Janie BarrettHis team had just won 62-6. Most coaches – even Wayne Bennett – could afford a smile at such a moment. But not Ivan Cleary.
Nanjing Night Net

He still walked into the post-game press conference like he had just spent the previous couple of hours waiting for a bus. There’s no shortage of complex and intriguing characters among the NRL coaching ranks, and Cleary is at the top of that list.

Des Hasler juggles a part-time stand-up comedy routine in between managing his football team, while Michael Maguire is on standby for Australia’s Ashes campaign given his prowess playing a straight bat to anything with a hint of swing. Speaking of the Australian cricket team, Cleary also gets his players to do homework.

After every game his players fill out a feedback form assessing their performance, which he returns the next day with his own thoughts on how they played. Lewis Brown, nicknamed ”Sharky” because his nose resembles a Shark fin, left the Warriors to reunite with Cleary at Penrith this season.

Brown described his coach as ”low maintenance”, but insists the guarded person you see on camera isn’t the man behind closed doors. ”When I first came into first grade I scored a try against the Panthers out at Penrith and we were winning 32-6 with about 15 minutes to go,” Brown said. ”I celebrated by doing a shark fin with my hands. They ended up getting it back to golden point and I had to come off with cramp, and it stayed a draw. Ivan wasn’t very happy so when I handed in my feedback sheet on Monday, he gave it back the next day and at the bottom it said, ‘Instead of choreographing post-try celebrations, how about you learn to push through fatigue?’.

”I showed the boys and they were all cracking up. It’s something I still talk to him about now. It just shows how much he doesn’t like people with a big ego. I was only a young kid then and I haven’t done a post-try celebration since.”

So how can a coach lead a team of relative unknowns to an upset win against the reigning premiers, then six days later put 62 points on a side that less than two years ago played in a grand final?

He copped abuse from his own fans for allowing the club’s three best players – Luke Lewis, Michael Jennings and Michael Gordon – to leave, yet he still has a group of players willing to bleed for him. Even Penrith captain Kevin Kingston, who has been shown the door by the club for next season, commended his coach for the actions he’s taken to move the club in the right direction.

”That’s what he’s paid to do: make the hard decisions,” Kingston said. ”He’s copped that criticism but he’s got thick skin and he has his narrow focus on what he thinks is going to work here and it’s working.

”The thing with Ivan is that if you do a good job for him, he’ll respect you forever. Which is why Lewis Brown is here and Elijah Taylor is coming next year. He’s very approachable and everyone wants to play for him. I can’t speak highly enough of him. The culture he’s created here has given everyone confidence and taught everyone to be independent at the same time.”

While Craig Bellamy and Maguire are famous for their half-time pep talks, Cleary chooses to take the opposite approach when dealing with his players.

”He’s not one to blow you up, but he’ll give you the silent treatment, and I believe that’s the worst kind of treatment of all of them,” Brown said. ”But he’s very approachable.

”A lot of players in the NRL think they can’t approach their coach, but for me he’s a mate and someone I get along well with.

”Most of all he’s honest. We probably didn’t realise how much we’d lost at the Warriors until last year. ”He’s the best coach I’ve ever had. It just shows the type of bloke he is. He signed for another club and could’ve packed up shop but he took us to a grand final in 2011.”

Twitter – @MichaelChammas

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