The rise of this young Panthers team from 10th one year to grand finalists against the Melbourne Storm the next has been the feelgood story of 2020 but the resurgence is even more remarkable in the context of what happened the season before.
NRL clubs often seem fragile but their ability to rise from the ashes — and, sometimes, win the premiership — in the face of deep adversity never fails to amaze.
The Storm brushed off the salary cap scandal of 2010 to win the minor premiership the following year and then the premiership a year after that.
Something similar happened with the Sharks, who were gutted by the ASADA scandal and subsequent penalties in 2013 before winning the grand final against the Storm three years later.
Manly’s Brett Stewart was charged with sexual assault in 2009, acquitted a year later and then defiantly told NRL boss David Gallop what he thought of him on the victory dais on grand final day a year later while receiving his premiership ring.
What happened at the Panthers on the eve of last season, though, was something altogether different.
When lewd videos popped up on social media the day before the side’s second trial match against Parramatta in early March, the club froze with fear of the unknown.
Names soon came to light. Young players Tyrone May, Liam Coleman and Tyrone Phillips were investigated by the NRL integrity unit.
“We essentially had a crisis meeting before that Parramatta game, because the story broke the night before,” Cleary recalls. “The integrity unit seemed like they were out here every day. Then I found out that I’m from the wrong era. When you talk to 20-somethings, you find out that everyone does it. That’s when we thought anything could be out there. Who was going to decide what’s OK and what’s not [to release]? And when was it going to be used?”
Coleman and Phillips are no longer at the club but May will line up in the grand final — possibly in the starting side at the expense of centre Brent Naden. May narrowly avoided a jail sentence after pleading guilty to filming two videos without the consent of the women involved.
There’s no value in trawling through the mistakes of the past. Cleary says a “line was drawn in the sand” in late January when May was sentenced to a three-year community corrections order.
I’m not proud of some of the things that went on, but our culture is fine.
But the relevant part of this particular scandal is what it allegedly said about the Penrith club, which finds itself within an inch of the premiership on Sunday.
“If you’re a parent, which I am, at the moment if I have a son good enough to play and if Penrith were in discussions with my son, I wouldn’t want my son to go and play at Penrith,” former international Laurie Daley previously mused on Sky Sports Radio. “And I wouldn’t want my daughter to go out with any Penrith player.”
Those remarks went down like a schooner of nails at the foot of the mountains.
“We were pissed off with that,” Panthers chairman Dave O’Neill says. “To Laurie’s credit, he has apologised for it but it’s bullshit. I’m not proud of some of the things that went on, but our culture is fine.”
This is where the lines start to blur when discussing Penrith. Unpicking who was asleep at the wheel and who’s responsible for their resurgence depends on who you talk to.
Former general manager of football, Phil Gould, has respectfully declined offers all week to speak, preferring to stay in the background.
But it’s little secret that no individual was rocked by the sex-tape scandal more than Gould, who dragged the Panthers back from the brink of insolvency when he came on board in 2010. He finished at Penrith in April last year.
It’s sensitive stuff for all concerned, and Cleary treads carefully when asked about the “culture” of the team he inherited.
“When I came back, things had changed,” he offers. “It wasn’t right. I saw some things that shocked me. My job as the head coach was to create the right environment in terms of the head culture. After the sex-tape thing, after seen what I’d seen, that became the No.1 priority.”
There are also plenty of people at Penrith who say it’s a cop out to pin Penrith’s indifferent 2019 season on the leaking of a few lurid videos on WhatsApp.
They won their first two but then went into a freefall despite having a roster many considered among the brightest in the competition
It’s not commonly known but, at the end of last year, the entire squad held an “honesty session”, when dirty linen was aired and home truths told.
Perhaps the most important change came when long-time assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo picked up the phone to Trent Barrett, who had acrimoniously split with Manly and needed something to do.
Under Barrett, the side’s attack has soared, especially when the ball is the hands of halfback Nathan Cleary — although his father believes the departure of five-eighth James Maloney is the reason.
Last year, whenever Jimmy wanted it, Jimmy got it. That’s just Nat’s personality and respect for Jimmy.
Ivan Cleary on son Nathan and James Maloney
“The biggest thing with ‘Nat’ is Jimmy not being here,” Ivan Cleary says. “The role that he’s got in the team now means he’s just really clear on what he’s doing. Last year, whenever Jimmy wanted it, Jimmy got it. That’s just Nat’s personality and respect for Jimmy. If ‘Romey’ [Jarome Luai] wants it, he doesn’t always get it.”
The circumstances around Cleary’s return to Penrith, after being sacked by Gould at the end of 2015, are also blurry.
Wayne Bennett did his best last week to muddy the waters but make no mistake: he shook hands with Gould on a deal to come to Penrith in 2019-20.
Even after it emerged that O’Neill was at the same time talking to Cleary, Bennett was still coming because Cleary had two years to run on his contract with the Wests Tigers.
Gould always had plans for Cleary to return — but it was to replace him as general manager of football.
For whatever reason, O’Neill and Cleary ploughed ahead to expedite the process. Bennett wasn’t needed and ended up at Souths because he believed the Broncos had already stitched up Anthony Seibold.
Some at Penrith figured signing Cleary would also secure Nathan long-term, although Gould was adamant that Nathan’s desire to play with his mates far outweighed his desire to play in an inferior side under his father at the Tigers. Under his plan, they’d be reunited soon enough anyway.
As it transpired, father and son came together sooner than expected. It hasn’t been entirely easy, not least when Nathan was embroiled in a TikTok scandal during the COVID-19 break.
“I arrived here with a bit of baggage,” Ivan Cleary says. “There were sections of the media who thought it was a better story for me to fail. Nat being connected to me made it a bigger story. That was a heavy burden for me to carry. But we were both really committed to it. Our personalities were always going to make it work. It helps that he’s a good player. It would be a disaster if, week to week, I had to work out at the selection table if he should be in the team.”
Any hard conversations?
“I have,” Cleary says. “I had hard conversations with a lot of them about what’s happened and what hasn’t. I don’t want to point fingers at the past, but those boys were a bit loose. They weren’t given a lot of guidance at the time.”
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Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.