Penrith’s ultimate successes have, historically, been fleeting. Not this time. The signing of star halfback Nathan Cleary and coach Ivan Cleary to long-term deals has set the Panthers up for sustainable security at the top of the premiership ladder. This may not be Melbourne Storm longevity but it is hard to see Penrith missing out on the top four anytime in the 2020s now the Clearys have locked themselves in as centrepieces.
Amid a great deal of controversy in 2019, Nathan Cleary was reunited with his father Ivan, who left the Wests Tigers in acrimonious circumstances to return to Penrith for his second stint as head coach. It led to Phil Gould’s departure as Penrith’s executive general manager and left a great deal of angst among the Wests Tigers faithful that the driver of the bus had ditched the joint. It did net a remarkable third premiership for the Panthers last year though, the golden generation realising their potential.
Penrith’s two previous titles, though, went as quickly as they came. Premierships can never be taken away but there was no doubt some disappointment the previous glories were not parlayed into dynasties. The long-awaited maiden win in 1991 was tragically cut short when the Panthers unravelled following the untimely death of Ben Alexander the year after. After winning in 2003, the Panthers returned to the top four the year after before five straight missed finals including a wooden spoon in 2007.
The heavy fall from glory is unlikely to hit Penrith now the Clearys have re-signed. Nathan is a generational talent, almost universally regarded as the best half in the game, while Ivan sits among the very few elite coaches in the NRL at present, shy of the god-like status afforded Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson but a top-level mentor with a premiership to his name and long-term job security.
It is no mystery the two key ingredients to premiership success are top-shelf coaching and a dominant playmaker with elite talent.
Ivan Cleary has long been touted as a quality coach even though his maiden premiership was a long time in the making. He played a long game though at Penrith, having the vision to understand what a golden age of youngsters including his uber-talented son could bring. It was not a smooth road but it did reach Shangri-La. Patience is an underrated virtue in rugby league. Clarity of vision is rare. Cleary has both.
There is absolutely no doubting Nathan either. Considered a bulletproof prospect coming through the grades, he has done nothing but ascend over the course of his seven-year career. There is almost no argument in 2022 as to who the top half in the competition is. He has finished in the top three in the last two years of the Dally M Medal count, has a Clive Churchill Medal around his neck and a premiership ring on his finger and has guided New South Wales to three of the last four Origin series wins.
And at just 24, the best is yet to come. Halfbacks of his style – smart, consistent, reliable perfectionists – are typically far better in their late 20s than they are in their early 20s. Cooper Cronk is probably the best comparison. Cronk lacked Cleary’s natural skills but worked tirelessly in the pursuit of consistent perfection, building perfect instincts to ensure defensive infallibility, impeccable kicking precision and an ability to see and understand and dissect the game on an otherworldly level.
Cronk won six premierships and played in nine Ggrand finals including in each of his last four years. Seven of those were after his 24th birthday. Cleary projects for something similar, making the $10 million Penrith are staking on the duo a fairly astute investment. Premiership windows rarely last a decade but the exceptions are when a team has a top-level coach and a star half whose game is built to last.
The Melbourne Storm has shown the modern way to build a team for longevity. Clubs must accept that players will come and players will go. The trick is to keep the transcendent, those that grow those around them, those that drive the tide, not ride it. Penrith have done just that. They lost Kurt Capewell and Matt Burton, Tyrone May and Brent Naden after their premiership. Villiame Kikau is off next year. Others will join. Penrith are playing it smart. They are investing in the stock that has minimal risk and the highest chance of return.
The Panthers know that any chance of success requires the Clearys. They have locked both in. It’s gonna be a bright sunshiny day tomorrow and the next day and for a long time to go at the foot of the mountains.