The vision has come to life… they are the words from new Panthers coach Ivan Cleary who believes he finally has the squad that can win Penrith its next premiership.
The 47-year-old began his second tenure as coach at the foot of the Mountains this week after negotiating a release from his former club, Wests Tigers, late last month.
Cleary was welcomed with open arms by both players and staff when he began his first day on the job on Monday.
Speaking with the Weekender inside his new garden view office, Cleary admitted he was nervous arriving to pre-season training for the first time before settling in like he never left.
“I was nervous because it was new and, even if it wasn’t new, I always get nervous the first day back every year… it’s just how it is,” he said.
“Everyone’s happy at the moment. I hadn’t been in this building (Academy) until two weeks ago… when I walked in I was like ‘wow’.
“All the faces are familiar and there’s hardly a staff member I haven’t worked with apart from a couple of new guys in performance.
“It’s very comfortable in that sense but the fact the building is totally new is probably good actually.”
While the bulk of Penrith’s top squad will return to training next week, Cleary has already reacquainted himself with many players he watched as kids coming through the system during his first stint as Panthers coach from 2012 to 2015.
Cleary believes having that pre-existing relationship with players will be a huge advantage.
“I’ve got good relationships with the players. A lot of the guys who are here, they debuted when I was coach. Even someone like Jimmy Maloney, I coached him at the Warriors,” he said.
“It helps 100 per cent. I either coached them, signed them or watched them come through the system, which I was very into because Nathan was playing. I watched Tyrone May, Jarome Luai, Dylan Edwards for years… it’s much easier.”
Despite getting the Panthers to a shock Preliminary Final appearance in 2014, Cleary’s first stint at Penrith was largely seen as a rebuild.
Cleary said the plan from the outset was to develop from within and that’s exactly what’s happened at Panthers even during his time away.
“The whole charter was around trying to get at least 80 per cent of the squad as locals coming through the system because when we started it was 20 per cent,” he said.
“The bulk of today’s squad has come through the system and, in two to three years’ time, pretty much the whole squad will be locals apart from a few. That vision we had has come to life.”
Now that Cleary has his squad of local, home grown talent, the pressure is well and truly on to deliver a title to a town starved of premiership success.
“To be able to win premierships you need to be up there every year. You’ve got to get yourself in the conversation and when the time is right and the stars align, you take advantage of that,” he said.
“The club has made three straight Finals but from the bottom half of the top eight. We’ve got to be a top four team and once we are, we can start thinking about premierships.
“We’ll find out in the next few weeks and months about how we are feeling about ourselves but I can tell there’s a real sense of purpose around this team and what we can achieve, which is exciting.”
Meanwhile, Cleary revealed his relationship with Panthers boss Phil Gould was “all good” and that he hadn’t spoken with former Penrith coach Anthony Griffin about the team he inherited.
He also confirmed that the club is working very hard on new long-term deals for Jarome Luai and James Fisher-Harris.
Nathan Taylor is the Western Weekender’s award-winning sports journalist. Nathan is also the Weekender’s Deputy Editor.