The NRL’s worst kept secret has been confirmed with Ivan Cleary returning as head coach of the Penrith Panthers for the next five seasons.
The Panthers confirmed the deal this afternoon after Cleary was released from the final two years of his contract at the Wests Tigers, who have signed premiership winner Michael Maguire to replace him.
It will be 47-year-old Cleary’s second stint at the Panthers after he coached the side from 2012 for four seasons before being dramatically sacked after an injury-ravaged 2015 season in which the club missed the Finals.
“I am honoured to be back as head coach of Panthers and very much look forward to being part of the future journey,” Cleary said.
“Personally I had a feeling of unfinished business with a club and a community that my family and I enjoy a strong connection with, from grassroots through to NRL players, staff and management.
“We have raised our family in the community for a number of years and are proud to call it home.”
The Weekender revealed in August that the Panthers had made a dramatic power play to lure Cleary back to the club after sacking Anthony Griffin with two years remaining on his contract.
At the time the Tigers were adamant they would not release Cleary from his 2019 or 2020 commitments, but on Sunday they finally relented after securing the services of Maguire, who won a premiership with Souths in 2014 and is currently in charge of the New Zealand Test side.
Cleary said he enjoyed his time at the Tigers and believes the club is well placed for the future.
“I am very fond of Wests Tigers and all its people,” Cleary said.
“I enjoyed my time there and it is a club heading in the right direction.
“I would like to thank Justin Pascoe and Marina Go for their professionalism throughout.”
Wests Tigers Chair Marina Go thanked Cleary for his efforts while at the club.
“On behalf of everyone at Wests Tigers I would like to thank Ivan for the work he did during his time at the club,” said Go.
“Ivan oversaw a period of significant change at Wests Tigers and his work will leave a positive impact on the club.”
Panthers Group CEO Brian Fletcher said the Panthers Board is confident Cleary will help the club achieve its full potential on and off the field.
“The Panthers Board is delighted with the appointment of Ivan Cleary as head coach for the next five years,” he said.
“The talent and depth in our playing squad means our club is well-placed to push for a premiership and we believe Ivan is the coach to take us there.
“Our players and staff have always maintained immense respect for Ivan, which speaks volumes about the quality of his character.
“It is with a renewed sense of excitement that we look forward to the 2019 NRL season and beyond.”
Cleary is not the first Penrith coach to have a second stint at the club. The side’s inaugural coach Leo Trevena was in charge of the side for the 1967 season and returned for another single season in 1973.
Cleary, who has coached Penrith 98 times, will become the club’s third most capped coach by the end of next season, jumping from seventh spot and overtaking Tim Sheens, Phil Gould, Bob Boland and Matthew Elliott. John Lang’s 125 games would most likely be eclipsed the following season, while Royce Simmons’ club record 177 games would be easily overtaken if Cleary sees out his five-year deal.
Re-joining Penrith will enable Cleary to coach his son Nathan next season. The pair have expressed their desire to work together for some time.
Cameron Ciraldo and Peter Wallace will remain with Penrith as assistant coaches next season.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor.