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Is Ivan Cleary actually a good coach?

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Roar Pro
24th May, 2019
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The Penrith Panthers are now three wins from 11 matches after a 16-10 victory over the Parramatta Eels on Thursday night.

The match definitely won’t be shortlisted as one of the classics, but Ivan Cleary would have felt some relief after his side got the two points thanks largely to his son Nathan’s performance in the second half.

However, there remain massive questions as to what has changed for a team that finished fifth in 2018 to look like a reserve-grade side for much of this season.

Reports today that Cleary has admitted that the sex-tape scandals during the off-season had more of an effect on the team than he even realised offers a reason for the form slump.

Ivan Cleary at Panthers training.

(Renee McKay/Getty Images)

But is it a legitimate excuse or a convenient reason to hide behind?

Cleary also said, “The dynamic of our team has changed since last year. Our leadership has got a fair bit to go. Our guys are doing the best job they can do”.

He’s seemingly laying the blame of the team’s slide in the Panthers leadership group.

Furthermore, Cleary said, “When you lose a captain like Peter Wallace … that had a big say in the dynamic of the team. Our teamwork has suffered”.

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I cannot help but wonder: doesn’t Cleary, the head coach, have some input into teamwork, leadership and keeping the ship steady?

The Panthers of 2019 and the comments Cleary has made would not be giving their supporters much hope. Fans should be justifiably concerned about Cleary’s inability to read the dressing room.

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So is Ivan Cleary even a good coach?

I am not the first to ask and answer this question. Gorden Tallis made clear his unequivocal opinion on the subject in 2018 on radio station Triple M.

“Everybody’s carrying on about Ivan Cleary but I’m calling bulls*** on his record. It (his win-loss record) was 50 per cent at the Warriors, it was 47 per cent at the Panthers and it’s 41 per cent (at Wests Tigers).”

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The science behind successful coaching, as history shows, can be heavily influenced by variables inside and outside the club bubble. Family, friends, agents, injuries and media can have an impact on individual players and by extension the team.

Ivan Cleary

(Mark Evans/Getty Images)

In many cases the coach can negate those outside influences, depending on the coach abilities. It would be hard not to think Trent Robinson has played a major role in maintaining Latrell Mitchell’s form through his player-agent relationship breakdown.

On the other hand, Wayne Bennett’s tenure at the Newcastle Knights, which included the life-changing injury to Alex McKinnon, was not successful. Here I would argue that no coach could have done any better. Wins and losses were hardly a priority for a group of players or the coach considering what was happening to one of their teammates.

What is Cleary’s excuse?

Sex tapes and the ensuing fallouts. Are these within a coach’s realm of incidents that they should be able to contain? I’m not really sure. Players lives have been affected, yes, but not to the point that one of them might find themselves confined to a wheelchair for life.

Maybe Tallis was right all along and the best explanation is the simplest. Looking at his coaching record, it hardly inspires confidence. It makes you wonder what the Panthers were thinking in offering a five-year contract.

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Five-year contracts for coaches belong to the Craig Bellamys, Wayne Bennetts and possibly Trent Robinsons.

You could analyse ad nauseum Cleary’s coaching record, dissecting his squads, boardroom support, outside influences, injuries et cetera, and you could debate whether his record was adversely affected beyond his control. But for a coach with over a decade’s experience, the law of averages would suggest his would be a hard case to argue.

He’s spent 12 years as a head coach and has a victory percentage in the 40s. In comparison, Des Hasler’s tumultuous tenure at the Bulldogs produced 94 wins from 166 games for a 57 per cent win rate. It’s surprising looking back at how rocky that situation always seemed to be.

Coaches live and die by premierships or the lack of them. Even good coaches may not win premierships, but they win more than they do not. I am with Tallis on this – his win-loss record doesn’t warrant the “carry on”, let alone a five-year contract, and regardless of any negative outside pressure, that record demonstrates an inability to be a successful coach at NRL level.