The Penrith Panthers’ season has been on life support for the last couple of weeks.
But after the Panthers slumped to a 30-4 loss at the hands of the Wests Tigers on Friday night, I’ve drawn a line through them and my advice to coach Ivan Cleary is to start preparing for next year, because he has plenty of work to do.
So where did it all go wrong for the Panthers?
This was a team that was meant to fighting for a title this season. Instead they are now languishing at the bottom of the ladder with four points and will be very lucky to finish without the wooden spoon.
Of course, the players must bear some of the responsibility given that they are the ones on the field.
The Panther playing better this year than last is James Tamou. The rest are struggling.
Consider Dylan Edwards, who was an exciting attacking prospect last year. He is now playing reserve grade.
Reagan Campbell-Gillard’s confidence seems to have been impacted following his broken jaw in 2018, and on current form, Nathan Cleary and James Maloney are making it hard for Brad Fittler to select them as his Origin halves.
Reports have also emerged this weekend that Dallin Watene-Zelezniak may have the opportunity to consider an immediate mid-season switch to the Parramatta Eels.
But rather than focus on the players, the responsibility for the train wreck that is the Panthers’ season must be carried by those running the club.
‘Culture problem’ is a phrase often used in rugby league.
Penrith’s culture was on display last year when they showed then-coach Anthony Griffin the door with eight weeks left in the season.
Penrith had every right to make this decision. What I take issue with is their decision to make an offer to Ivan Cleary, who was then contracted with the Wests Tigers.
It demonstrated tremendous arrogance for the Panthers to disrupt the season of another NRL club, particularly when that side was still a chance of playing finals football at that point.
Everyone knows why the Panthers went so hard after Cleary.
They wanted to make sure that their star prospect Nathan Cleary stayed at the club.
Nathan and Ivan had both made it clear at different points through the 2018 season that they wanted an opportunity to work together. The Panthers board made that vision a reality by offering Ivan a five-year deal at the end of last season.
Keeping Nathan must have driven Penrith to make the decision, because they certainly couldn’t have been swayed by Ivan’s coaching record.
Ivan is one of only two coaches in the NRL who has coached more than 300 games and still has a negative win-loss record. The other is Ricky Stuart from the Canberra Raiders.
When people speak about Ivan, it sometimes sounds like he is a beginner coach at the start of his career. Maybe it’s because he had some time away from the NRL and was forgotten about.
But it is certainly not the case that he is a newbie coach.
Additionally, five years is too long for most contracts in the NRL, given how much can change in that space of time.
It’s not just about a leadership that would wheel-and-deal to get a coach – it’s also about an organisation that faces the challenges around its playing group that the Panthers did at the start of the year.
Tyrone May’s behaviour was well documented at the beginning of 2019, when he was charged with two counts of recording intimate images without consent, and two counts of distributing images without consent.
May is not the only NRL player to have featured in such a video, and this issue affects more clubs than just Penrith.
But you question a culture where such behaviour is occurring.
You also question what impact that had on player preparation heading into the season, given it was widely reported that other players were on edge because they knew more videos were out there.
It was a sub-optimal start for Ivan Cleary, who would have wanted to start his time at the Panthers with a focus on the pre-season rather than the impact of a sex-tape scandal on his players.
For the Panthers, they have some challenging teams to play in the weeks ahead, including the Sydney Roosters.
However, there are some winnable games there too, such as the injury-ravaged Manly Sea Eagles and the New Zealand Warriors.
But deeper issues need to be considered before Penrith begin working their way out of this mess.
Phil Gould was criticised for not delivering a premiership in his five-year plan.
But post-Gus, my question is: is there a plan at all?