Ivan Cleary is the NRL’s best coach and his feral Tigers prove it

Tim Gore Columnist

By Tim Gore, Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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117 Have your say

    “John Lennon said, “I’m an artist. You give me a f@*#ing tuba, I’ll get you something out of it.”

    I was unable to verify whether this quote, attributed to John Lennon by Jack Nicholson’s Boston gangster character Frank Costello in the movie The Departed, was actually delivered by the great Beatle or not.

    However, what I do know is that the same sentiment could be readily delivered by Ivan Cleary – not that a bloke like him would ever make such a brash statement – in regard to his undoubted ability to get the very best out of players.

    But for an Ash Klein penalty – which I still maintain was justified – the Wests Tigers may well be undefeated in season 2018.

    While one of those victories has been over the struggling Eels, their gritty and disciplined victories over the well credentialled Roosters, as well as their two wins against the Storm, have totally removed them from any talk of wooden spoons.

    While some betting agencies are yet to wake up to the realisation that the 2018 Wests Tigers only have the vaguest similarity to the 2017 model (I got $1.91 for them last weekend with a 7.5 point start!) the rest of the football world knows that they are the real deal.

    Just last season the joint venture club was a shambles. Having just missed the finals in 2016, they started the 2017 season with a 34-18 win over the Rabbitohs before conceding 132 points in their next four games. On top of that their four best players were all coming off contract simultaneously. There was infighting a-plenty and the ongoing viability of the club was openly in question.

    (Photo: AAP)

    Enter Ivan Cleary.

    I’m no recent arrival to the boy from Beacon Hill’s admiration society. His efforts at the Warriors and then the Panthers – culminating in a grand final and preliminary final respectively – clearly showed the bloke could make a silk purse from a sows ear.

    I still have no idea why Phil Gould got rid of him. Maybe it’s because Cleary demands supreme executive control over his sides and that’s just not a thing that Gus can bring himself to cede.

    When Cleary walked into the Wests Tigers in Round 6 2017 it was totally on his terms. He was in charge. It was his bus and if you wanted to be on that bus it was only if you were going to play by his rules.

    Cleary seemingly cared little for the reputations of ‘the big four’ of Aaron Woods, James Tedesco, Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses. He showed that emphatically when he released the want-away Moses after Round 10 to go to the Eels. Soon after Tedesco and Woods announced their departures at season’s end. Only Brooks chose to stay on the bus.

    However, you could tell that bus was heading somewhere. When Cleary took over the Wests Tigers they had a points differential of minus 88, an average match deficit of 15 points.

    By seasons end that had been cut to just nine points, with the team winning six of their 18 games under Cleary with an average match deficit of just four points.

    The bus was getting into gear.

    When the club released the promising Moses Suli in the preseason I – and lots of others – thought it signalled yet more turmoil for the besieged club.

    While previewing the potential of all 16 NRL clubs pre-season, I could not see how the Wests Tigers list could possibly be competitive. And then Cleary named this squad for the first match of 2018.

    8. Matt Eisenhuth
    9. Pita Godinet
    10. Russell Packer
    11. Robbie Rochow
    12. Chris Lawrence
    13. Elijah Taylor
    7. Luke Brooks
    6. Benji Marshall
    5. Malakai Watene-Zelezniak
    4. Kevin Naiqama
    3. Esan Masters
    2. Corey Thompson
    1. Tui Lolohea
    14. Ben Matulino
    15. Alex Twal
    16. Michael Chee-Kam
    17. Matt McIlwrick

    All that I could say of this team was that it was clearly a bunch of has beens, never weres and never would bes.

    Not only wasn’t Josh Reynolds available, Cleary actually kept David Nofoaluma, Chris McQueen and Sauso Sue in the reserves. Did he want to lose?

    I was far from the Lone Ranger when I predicted a total flogging at the hands of a Roosters team that featured Cooper Cronk, Latrell Mitchell, Boyd Cordner and Blake Ferguson.

    When Corey Thompson went over in the 77th minute and Tui Lolohea duly converted from out wide for the Wests Tigers to hit the lead we were all stunned.

    How had they done it?

    Kevin Naiqama

    (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

    Well, it was simple really. Just like all Cleary coached sides, they played incredibly disciplined team football. They didn’t drop the ball and give the Roosters easy possession, duly completing at 84 per cent.

    They held their defensive line with maniacal zeal, missing only 21 tackles. They pressured their opposition, who made 13 errors. They ran the ball with intent, making 160 more metres than their opposition. And when their chance came to score they took it.

    This was not an accident and their other four equally dedicated efforts show that it was far from a fluke.

    This is what a player learns on Ivan’s bus: a great work ethic, application to a game plan, pressure and belief in themselves and their teammates.

    As the success has continued so has their confidence and belief grown.

    However, they won’t get carried away. Ivan doesn’t do big egos. Never has. He has no time for the sort of show boating rubbish that comes with it. I’m surprised Kevin Naiqama is even able to keep his haircut.

    Ivan wants only your hard work and your total buy in. In fact he demands it or you can get the hell off his damn bus.

    And from this motley assortment he has cobbled together – these waifs and strays, these mongrels, these feral tigers of Campbelltown – he has clearly got it.

    Just look at these incredible team stats:
    • the fewest tries conceded of any side (7) so far this season. That includes two games against last season’s top-scoring side.
    • the fewest errors of any side (40)
    • the most errors forced from their opponents (60)
    • the third fewest line breaks conceded (11)
    • the third most metres made (7638)
    • the most kick metres made of any side (3314)
    • the most line drop outs forced (14)

    This weekend star recruit Josh Reynolds will get his first start for the Wests Tigers off the bench. Further, David Nofoaluma and Suaso Sue have returned to a side they now know they must earn their place in. Chris McQueen has even made the extended bench. It seems the club I thought had the worst list in the league actually has some pretty good depth.

    Any talk of the Wests Tigers getting the wooden spoon is now totally gone. Further, I’ll be very surprised if they miss the finals.

    The only question I have is whether they can go all the way without some real star power to help them win finals matches.

    Perhaps Josh Reynolds dodgy hamstring will allow him to play that role for his new club. It would be a Cinderella story for the ages.

    Ivan Cleary NRL Rugby League Wests Tigers 2017

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    However, it won’t be the sort with glass slippers or flowing gowns if it happens.

    It will be the ugly step sisters crashing the ball – but in a very methodical, deliberate and committed manner – to carry off the Prince, whether he likes it or not, to bring him back to Ivan’s bus.

    Like John Lennon, Ivan Cleary is an artist.

    You can give him pretty much any bunch of footballers – even these feral Tigers of Campbelltown – and he’ll f*&^ing get something out of them…

    Just watch him.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.

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    The Crowd Says (117)

    • April 12th 2018 @ 6:26am
      Simon Murray said | April 12th 2018 @ 6:26am | ! Report

      I hope his son has many of the same traits. He will be a wonderful footballer if so.

      Just to point out a difference between say an excellent coach like Ivan and a rather poor one like Sticky; I don’t think Ivan Cleary would ever call his players soft, in the public forum, for the goal of increased morale. Not a sustainable strategy there.

      • Columnist

        April 12th 2018 @ 7:20am
        Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:20am | ! Report

        You leave Ricky out of this! He’ll fight and he’ll win dammit.
        You’ll see. You’ll all see!

        • Roar Guru

          April 12th 2018 @ 9:00am
          Nat said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:00am | ! Report

          Such a positive story then, POW, kicked in the crackers in the first comment.

        • Roar Guru

          April 12th 2018 @ 9:15am
          spruce moose said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:15am | ! Report

          I’ll see to it that he won’t get a cent of Apricot One.

          • Columnist

            April 12th 2018 @ 9:29am
            Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:29am | ! Report

            Ah Spruce, as usual you are the sober ting to my raging yang…

            • Roar Guru

              April 12th 2018 @ 11:19am
              spruce moose said | April 12th 2018 @ 11:19am | ! Report

              If you haven’t listen to the “Four Finger Discount” podcast

              That goes for the rest of you….punks…as well.

        • April 13th 2018 @ 6:11pm
          Joey b said | April 13th 2018 @ 6:11pm | ! Report

          They are not the ‘Tigers of Campbelltown!’ They are the Wests Tigers and still represent Balmain and the Inner West too, thank you very much!

    • Roar Guru

      April 12th 2018 @ 7:00am
      peeeko said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:00am | ! Report

      its amazing how well they are doing. looking at heir team in round 1 i was speaking with a wests mate and said, there is not 1 player in your team that i would want in mine (dragons – and i rated us as average) with the exception of packer and matulino as rotation props

      • Columnist

        April 12th 2018 @ 7:19am
        Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:19am | ! Report

        My feelings exactly.

        • April 13th 2018 @ 6:12pm
          Joey b said | April 13th 2018 @ 6:12pm | ! Report

          You are a flog Tim

    • April 12th 2018 @ 7:02am
      i miss the force said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:02am | ! Report

      you left out a very important stat – attack, they cant score above 10 points!
      i am looking to seeing this article again in August when they are 12th

      • Columnist

        April 12th 2018 @ 7:19am
        Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:19am | ! Report

        Except in round 4 where they scored 30 points.

    • April 12th 2018 @ 7:20am
      Duncan Smith said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:20am | ! Report

      Yeh – go the ugly sisters!

      See how good the tigers are now that they got rid of their ‘best players’ Woods, Tedesco, and Moses!

      • Columnist

        April 12th 2018 @ 7:22am
        Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:22am | ! Report

        Certainly changed the sides focus.

        • April 12th 2018 @ 8:42am
          Fred said | April 12th 2018 @ 8:42am | ! Report

          Getting rid of Moses has brought out the best in Luke Brooks. Having a mature halves partner like Benji has done wonders for him.

          • Columnist

            April 12th 2018 @ 9:30am
            Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:30am | ! Report

            Agreed. And look at his defence. What an improvement

          • April 12th 2018 @ 10:17am
            Wayne Turner said | April 12th 2018 @ 10:17am | ! Report

            Indeed. That’s because Moses is overrated – His ego bigger than his ability. Also,if you play in the halves with him long enough Moses ruins you eg: Look at Norman now too.

    • April 12th 2018 @ 7:37am
      RandyM said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:37am | ! Report

      Paul Gallen said the Tigers still won’t make the top 8 on 100% footy. He clearly believes the Sharks are still certainties though even though he didn’t say it.

      I’m with you Tim, the season so far has a whiff of 2005 about it, but I am not sure if this Tigers outfit will go all the way. The Dragons or Warriors could be the 2005 Tigers of 2018.

      • Roar Guru

        April 12th 2018 @ 9:16am
        spruce moose said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:16am | ! Report

        yes, objective commentary by Paul Gallen wasn’t it?

        • Columnist

          April 12th 2018 @ 9:32am
          Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:32am | ! Report

          You know the best thing about Gallen: he’s exactly what you see. There’s no pretence or facade. He answers the question and tells you what he thinks. I admire that.

          • Roar Guru

            April 12th 2018 @ 9:38am
            Nat said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:38am | ! Report

            For a footy analyst he’s a quite a player

            • April 12th 2018 @ 10:17am
              Wayne Turner said | April 12th 2018 @ 10:17am | ! Report

              I agree. He’s an ignorant buffoon.

          • April 12th 2018 @ 10:11am
            Wayne Turner said | April 12th 2018 @ 10:11am | ! Report

            Gallen doesn’t think. That’s his problem. Intelligent he is not. He got that gig cause he’s a high profile player,that says stupid things.

          • April 12th 2018 @ 11:35am
            Noel said | April 12th 2018 @ 11:35am | ! Report

            Except if you mention performance enhancing drugs. He can be pretty sanctimonious I think, in criticism of others with that blight on his record.

          • April 13th 2018 @ 3:12pm
            Peter Phelps said | April 13th 2018 @ 3:12pm | ! Report


            Paul Gallen is simply too thick to be anything other than what you see. He wouldn’t have a clue how to do anything else. It would be like asking Homer Simpson to run the country (oh on second thoughts, America did that didn’t they).

    • April 12th 2018 @ 7:53am
      kk said | April 12th 2018 @ 7:53am | ! Report

      Hi Tim,

      Ivan the Incredible’s crowning achievement to date is encouraging Ben Matulino, the former
      part time Warrior, to make positive contributions to the game. I had labelled him insane with
      the signing of that injury prone train wreck. Noticed they all look leaner and meaner in 2018.

      The Lennon quote may be beyond confirmation. As an aside you could ask Ivan if he enjoys
      eating crab in his dressing gown without the need for utensils.

      Whenever I see the Cleary combo interviewed on TV, it’s odds on they will be at the same
      club in 2019.

      • April 12th 2018 @ 8:25am
        i miss the force said | April 12th 2018 @ 8:25am | ! Report

        ok ,check his stats, he has done nothing

        • Columnist

          April 12th 2018 @ 9:33am
          Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 9:33am | ! Report

          Check his minutes and missed tackles and then compare to 2017

      • April 12th 2018 @ 4:29pm
        Mushi said | April 12th 2018 @ 4:29pm | ! Report

        It’s funny because I’m not sure that Lennon was that accomplished as a musician. He was more the song writer than the actual musician.

        I also worry about Tim’s fact check, my first attempt on google yielded a bajillion hits on this rolling Stone article:

        “Yoko has made me feel cocky about my guitar. You see, one part of me says yes, of course I can play because I can make a rock move, you know. But the other part of me says well, I wish I could just do like B.B. King. If you would put me with B.B. King, I would feel real silly. I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.”

        The same article

        “Well, it depends on what kind of guitarist. I’m OK, I’m not technically good, but I can make it howl and move.”

        The actual interview could be used as a counter point to Tim’s article

        • Columnist

          April 12th 2018 @ 8:00pm
          Tim Gore said | April 12th 2018 @ 8:00pm | ! Report

          I swear I looked through that piece. I clearly missed it…

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