Panthers players have thrown their support behind two-time Premiership winner Ivan Cleary, the seemingly forgotten man in this year’s Dally M Coach of the Year race.
For the second straight year, Cleary has guided the Panthers to the top of the NRL ladder with a month of the season remaining – that’s despite him losing both of his assistant coaches from last season and several players from his 2022 premiership-winning squad.
While other candidates, including Kevin Walters from Brisbane and Andrew Webster from the Warriors, have done wonders with their respective sides this year, it’s the calm and collected Cleary who has stood out above the pack, according to his players.
Panthers prop Lindsay Smith, who’s enjoying a breakout season in first grade, said Cleary is the best coach in the game.
“He’s unreal… just look at the performances over the last four years and where we’ve come from as well,” he told Extra Time.
“From where we were in 2019 to 2020, and then to maintain that for the next four years has been nothing short of unbelievable and he’s been a massive part of that.
“Obviously I’m biased but I think he’s the best coach in the league.”
Panthers winger Sunia Turuva agreed with his teammate’s sentiments, saying no-one deserves Coach of the Year more than the 52-year-old, who has guided Penrith to three straight Grand Finals.
“It wasn’t that long ago he was having a tough time here but then just to bring the club through all the downs, losing a Grand Final and then going back-to-back, I think he deserves it 100 per cent,” Turuva said.
“I put a lot of his success down to the trust he puts in us players as well as the people around him. Not only does he have full trust in his new assistant coaches this season, but also the trust he’s had in players like Lindsay and I, who hadn’t played many games in the NRL before this year.”
Turuva, who has played every single game in first grade this season, said Cleary has been nothing short of incredible for his development as a footballer. The Fijian international believes private one-on-one chats with him have helped grow his game immensely.
“He gives me confidence each week and has full trust in me,” the 20-year-old said.
“He just gave me the confidence ever since Taylan [May] went down – checking in on me, seeing how I’m going.
“Even if there’s something I need to work on in my game he will tell me and make sure I work on it at training – that’s why he’s doing so well.”
Making the Dally M Coach of the Year race even more juicy is the fact Cleary is up against Andrew Webster, a former assistant coach of his during Penrith’s last two Premiership-winning seasons (2021 and 2022).
Smith said Webster has enjoyed one hell of a debut season in charge of the Warriors.
“Webby has been unreal! He did a great job with us last year and the year before from an attacking point of view and he’s doing an amazing job over at the Warriors right now,” he said.
“Webby’s an absolute legend of a bloke, but I think what’s happened over the last four years here at Penrith speaks for itself.”
Nathan Taylor is the Weekender’s Deputy Editor and Senior Sports Writer. He also compiles the weekly Chatter on the Box TV column. Nathan is an award-winning journalist, who has worked at the Weekender for a decade.