Cleary’s sacking proves no coach is safe from the chopping board

Ivan Cleary appeared to have one of the safest coaching positions in rugby league, that was until the mayhem on Tuesday that forced him out of the Penrith Panthers club.

Panther fans were left scratching their heads trying to work out how this all happened.  Me being one of them.

I don’t agree with the decision personally considering the difficult season dogged by injuries.   This was generally echoed by rugby league fans this week.

Many Panther fans trust General Manager Phil Gould in the decision he has made.  Time will tell if I can be convinced.

After all, in May 2015 Gould squashed rumours that Cleary was leaving the club to head to Manly. His assistant coach, Trent Barrett, landed the role shortly after.

First, I am assured that Manly has not made an offer to Ivan.  Second, Ivan is very happy at Panthers.  He and his coaching team have done a wonderful job during the past 3.5 seasons.  I see no end point to his current tenure.

Ivan still has a lot of work to do at the club.  The idea of Ivan coaching anywhere other than Panthers has never been raised

Greg Alexander at season’s end affirmed the club’s position after Cleary’s link with New Zealand Warriors.

It’s almost inevitable.  People start questioning things when you have a poor season, as we have, and the Warriors too, but they’res absolutely nothing in it.

It’s people piecing things together, but we’ve got complete faith in Ivan.  With a halfway healthy side he’s shown what he can do, and the review is aimed at ensuring that happens.

Gould made it known this week that he believed Penrith “burnt him (Cleary) out” before announcing former Brisbane Broncos coach Anthony Griffin’s three year deal as head coach.  Gould was expecting that Cleary wouldn’t admit to being burnt out.  The former coach is now holidaying in the Maldives.

The record books will show Ivan Cleary’s record coaching the Panthers was fourth best in their forty-nine year history with a success rate of 45% recording 44 wins out of 98 matches.  Only the late Ron Willey (66%), Gould (55%) and John Lang (51%) have better records with the club.

He lifted the club within one game of a 2014 Grand Final appearance in becoming the National Rugby League’s Coach of the Year.  Local juniors Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak shone after a dark period where former coach Matt Elliott was reluctant to promote from one of the largest nursery’s in the game.

In a difficult year of injuries to their spine, Penrith were in a battle on the last Saturday of the regular season to avoid the wooden spoon. Will Smith produced an exceptional performance at fullback, lifting the Panthers away from bottom of the table and into eleventh spot ahead of western Sydney rivals Parramatta and West Tigers.

If there was a criticism of Penrith’s on-field performance this year you can point the finger fairly and squarely at the lack of points, ranking in last place by scoring 399 points.  The ad-lib style that bought the club so much success the season prior was read a lot better by opposing clubs as they shut down Segeyaro and restricted Moylan’s impact before a season ending injury against the Eels.  Beside the Panthers spine being decimated, the lack of points may have been a result of the publicly played out, club imposed ban on Barrett and subsequent move to the northern beaches in 2016.

As Brandy Alexander said, with a half healthy side Cleary was doing a fantastic job.  2016 was looking bright with Trent Merrin moving to the club and a full-strength squad hitting the ground running for a bigger, better year.

No one anticipated the change unless you were closely linked with the club and had inside information.

Anthony Griffin heads into the hot seat at Penrith with a 52% coaching record having won 56 of 106 matches with the Broncos.  He took the baby Broncos to the inaugural National Youth Competition Grand Final with players like Ben Hunt, Josh Maguire and Andrew McCullough who would become stars under his guidance at the top level.

For me, the darker, more concerning side of Griffin was his relationship with players.  It was well known his relationship with Peter Wallace and Ben Hannant strained during his tenure at Red Hill.  Griffin denied this week there was any problem between him and potentially the number seven going into the first game next year.  Rumours will continue to grow about Wallace being banished to VB NSW Cup next year.

“It was extremely difficult the Ivan Cleary decision and it’s my decision, I made that call, I’ll stand by it and I’ll be accountable for it” – Phil Gould

In business, accountability is a big thing.  I will stand and applaud Gould if his gamble pays off.

Supposing it doesn’t, what happens to Gus?

Nearing sixty years old and with a heavy media load with broadcaster Channel 9 and columnist in Sydney Morning Herald, Gus would still be an influence on the game with his strong opinions about how the game should be run. He may, however, feel that if he can’t deliver the club the success which has evaded them since 2003 then it would be the end of the road.

Finally, I would like to express my condolence towards Ivan Cleary. I have always found him approachable to fans whether it was with the Warriors or Panthers. He worked well with Gould to develop a plan for the future of the club with a mixture of players in the twilight of their careers and promotion of successful juniors. I feel extremely sorry for his son Nathan who missed out on winning a Holden Cup medal after opting to play for the Australian Schoolboys a week earlier in Brisbane. His future is now in limbo.

Late this week Cleary was linked with the Australian head coach role that’s been vacated by new Salford Reds coach Tim Sheens.  After a disappointing ANZAC Test against the Kiwis, he would be ideal replacement with the Rugby League World Cup coming up in two years time.

Thank you Ivan for a top job!

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