When you think of the coaches under pressure this coming NRL season, it seems silly to even mention the man who took the Panthers to the grand final a few short months ago.
Ivan Cleary had a marvellous 2020 all things considered, leading his team to the minor premiership and ultimately losing the decider by just six points.
What’s more, with Phil Gould having long departed the foot of the mountains, the Panthers are very much Ivan’s team.
So obviously Cleary is not under pressure to retain his job – it would take a spectacular, Broncos-esque failure of a season for the brass at Penrith to even contemplate replacing their coach, especially considering his son is their star player and Ivan has only just completed the second year of a five-year deal.
However, Cleary must be starting to feel the pressure to finally convert a great team into one that actually wins a premiership.
Because after 14 seasons as a head coach in five stints at four different clubs, while he has led a team to the big dance on two occasions – with the Warriors in 2011 and last year with Penrith – the ultimate victory still eludes Cleary.
That he hasn’t won a comp doesn’t necessarily make him an outlier. In fact, of the active NRL coaches, only six – Wayne Bennett, Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson, Michael Maguire, Ricky Stuart and Des Hasler – have premiership rings as head coaches, so the majority are in the same boat as Cleary.
However, none of the rest of these current coaches have anywhere near his amount of experience.
According to the Rugby League Project, Cleary’s 342 games has him 13th on the all-time list of 305 coaches – and he’s due to rise to 12th, above Frank Stanton, in Round 2 of this year.
However, only one man has coached more games than Cleary without winning a title: perennial bridesmaid Brian Smith.
Furthermore, Cleary is the only coach in the game’s 20 most experienced to have won fewer games than he’s lost, with a winning percentage of 49.7.
Now, as I said at the top, Cleary is under virtually no threat of being sacked this year, however I wonder what the board would make of another season without a title.
Aside from the fact the Panthers are the bookies’ favourite to raise the Provan-Summons Trophy, so anything less would have to be considered a failure, starting 2022 without that piece of silverware in the cabinet would see the team’s premiership window close ever so slightly further.
They may be a team with plenty of upside, but Penrith’s crop of young stars are already being picked off by rival clubs and offers from the likes of the Roosters can be hard to turn down when Nick Politis can offer both great coin and a realistic shot at the grand final year after year.
By comparison, if Penrith go are not the winners on the first weekend of October 2021, you couldn’t blame some players for wondering if their best hopes of tasting glory lie at a different club.
Or simply under a different coach.
After almost 350 games holding a clipboard, Cleary is the definition of a career coach, however as I see it, there are two kinds of career coaches: those who win titles and those who are called in to oversee rebuilds.
That Cleary can only wear a wedding band on his fingers, as well as his underwhelming victory percentage – a reflection of having coached average teams, rather than of being an average coach – have him firmly in the latter camp.
And no one would be more aware of this than Ivan himself.
Penrith will not have an easy run of it in 2021, as no opponent will take them lightly. But they have arguably the hottest young roster in the comp, the experience of a largely successful finals campaign and the hunger that comes from losing a grand final.
They are the justifiable favourites to win the title.
Which means this is the best chance Ivan Cleary has to finally get the monkey off his back and stamp himself as a coach who wins comps, not just a coach who’s competent.