Nathan Cleary is being compared to Johnathan Thurston and it doesn’t sound entirely ridiculous.
Ivan Cleary has his team humming. Phil Gould is getting credit for a meticulously constructed roster that just might be premiership material.
The Penrith Panthers are right where they were expected to be … only on a 12-month delay.
“You’ve got to remember, last year they came off the sex tapes at the start of the season, which totally derailed their whole year,” 1991 premiership winner Brad Fittler said on Wide World of Sports’ Freddy and the Eighth.
“And then after Origin, Nathan Cleary got injured again. The season just went a bit south.
“They’ve got a really good roster there. Whatever criticism Gus [Gould] cops, he’s done a good job in getting a lot of that roster together.
“And they’re just warming up. They’re now going. They play for each other and that’s what makes them so difficult at the moment to beat.”
Tipped as premiership contenders last season when Cleary Sr resumed as Penrith coach, the Panthers instead finished a disastrous 10th. The sex tape scandal wounded the club, which started 2-2 then went on a six-game losing streak; before a seven-game winning run was brought undone by three losses in their last four matches.
Gould, the club’s first premiership coach back in 1991, stepped aside as general manager in April last year but his fingerprints were all over the team. He had made it his mission to nurture the best local talent from Penrith’s gigantic junior nursery and logic said that it was only a matter of time before fortunes turned.
Now, the Panthers are second in the NRL after last week’s impressive win over South Sydney. They’ve lost just once, to first-placed arch rival Parramatta, and claimed wins in benchmark games against the Roosters and Storm.
Penrith’s attack is rated just ninth in the NRL but their defence is fifth; they are a tidy side. Things are alive at the foot of the mountains, where a premiership was last won in 2003, when Craig Gower was halfback and John Lang the coach.
Cleary Jr is leading the way this time, despite a belated season resumption thanks to his TikTok antics. The NSW State of Origin halfback is in sensational form and was clearly ready to be his team’s No.1 playmaker, with James Maloney having moved on.
Panthers captain James Tamou compared Cleary to Thurston after he led Penrith past the Rabbitohs, in terms of the halfback’s competitiveness. It raised eyebrows but Fittler endorsed the comment.
“The things that make him great, Nathan … he dived on a loose ball, he was also in two tackles where a loose ball came out. He chases kicks,” said Fittler, Cleary’s NSW Origin coach.
“They’re the things that made JT great as well. When he wasn’t doing something great, he was also chasing his teammates’ good stuff. Everything seemed like it was about the team.
“The good thing is now, Nathan’s starting to get a bit of a highlights reel going. He’s kicked a few field goals under pressure now, a few kicks from the sideline. He’s had some big performances in State of Origin. He’s only young, he’s 22; he’s got plenty of time.”
Immortal Andrew Johns added: “That’s the best performance I’ve seen him play the other night.
“He had a real presence about him, just the way he was doing things and demanding the ball, and then that try late – that’s what the great ones do, they stand up when it’s late.”
Penrith have a wealth of talent, from blockbusting forwards like Viliame Kikau to five-eighth Jarome Luai to playmaking phenom Matt Burton, currently stuck on the bench and barely playing. Cleary Sr has the team firing midway through the shortened season, as does assistant coach and former Test playmaker Trent Barrett.
“He’s going sensationally (Cleary Sr). I think they’re a real outsider [chance] to win the competition,” Johns said.
“The best thing: there’s not much noise coming out of there. I think he does a great job, Ivan.
“They’re a real outsider and they’ve hit form. They’ve got a well-balanced team and they look a real happy bunch.
“Trent Barrett does the attack [and] the attack looks dynamite. They’re one team that’s adjusted to the quicker ruck.”
Both Clearys bore the brunt of criticism for Penrith’s disappointing 2019 season, exacerbated by the father-son relationship that remains a curiosity within such a highly-charged professional setting. Winning solves virtually all problems in rugby league and the pair are offering a fine riposte this season.
“We expect too much, too soon from every coach,” Johns said.
Fittler added: “They get hammered. You get a year and they’re sacking you. Seriously.”
Penrith can make another statement about their title credentials on Saturday night, when they take on the sixth-placed Wests Tigers at Bankwest Stadium.