Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has paid tribute to his players and staff after taking home his second Dally M Coach of the Year award on Monday night.
The 49-year-old has guided Penrith to this year’s Grand Final on the back of a club record 17 straight wins in a season full of challenges, none bigger than the COVID-19 pandemic that at one stage shut down the competition.
Accepting the award during the Dally M virtual ceremony at Fox League on Monday, the 350-plus game coaching veteran said he’s grateful for what’s been an incredible ride this year.
“One of the proudest things for me as a coach is watching our boys play and how much they love it,” he said.
“That’s the same with the staff as well. A coach is nothing without his players and staff and I have outstanding players and tremendous staff.”
Penrith missed the Finals last year in what was Cleary’s return to the club, but the group had confidence they could do something special in season 2020.
“We started the year without a lot of love out there but we had a lot of belief in ourselves before anyone else did,” Cleary said.
“Each game we just seemed to grow in confidence and get better and better as the wins racked up.”
Showing his usual calm, measured approach that we see in the coach’s box or in post-match press conferences, Cleary refused to take full credit for Penrith’s record-breaking year.
“I turn up to work each day and do my best,” he said.
“I have an incredible staff with me, it’s certainly a team effort.”
The Panthers’ special season was also recognised with five awards in the Dally M Team of the Year, highlighted by Nathan Cleary being named Halfback of the Year.
Prop James Fisher-Harris, second rower Viliame Kikau, lock Isaah Yeo and centre Stephen Crichton were also named in the Team of the Year, which for the first time saw a full 13-man team honoured.
Nathan Cleary missed out on the Dally M Player of the Year gong, with Canberra’s Jack Wighton taking home the major award in a nail-biting final count.
Cleary ultimately finished third in the count, two points behind Wighton and a point behind Parramatta captain Clinton Gutherson. Cleary failed to poll points in the final round match against Canterbury, ultimately costing him the award. His early-season suspension for breaching the NRL’s bubble rules also impacted his final tally.
NRL CEO Andrew Abdo congratulated all players involved in what was the most challenging season in the game’s history, thanking them for their commitment.
“Tonight we honoured our most exceptional players in an extraordinary season,’’ Mr Abdo said on Monday.
“Despite unprecedented challenges our players took our game to a new level in 2020. Tonight we celebrated our very best, those who provided so much excitement and hope during a challenging time in our community.
“Congratulations to Jack on creating history, winning the Dally M Medal in such a tough and uncompromising season. His feats will forever be etched into rugby league folklore.”
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.