Cleary learns from previous Barrett exit

Matt Encarnacion
Ivan Cleary wants assistant Trent Barrett (left) to see out the NRL season even if he exits in 2021

Trent Barrett was Ivan Cleary's assistant at Penrith in 2015 when he was sent on gardening leave for talking to a rival NRL club about a head coaching gig.

Five years on and, after both spent time away from the foot of the mountains, both men are back in almost exactly the same situation.

But Cleary has no intention of pruning Barrett a second time following negotiations between he and Canterbury about their vacant top job.

"I've been speaking regularly with Trent. I'm right across everything that is going on," Cleary said ahead of the Panthers' clash with North Queensland on Sunday.

Cleary was unaware of Barrett's talks with Manly almost half a decade ago.

At the time, the Panthers were coming off a semi-final finish the previous year and were sitting in eighth spot midway through the campaign.

But Barrett's mid-season exit, combined with a horror injury toll, resulted in Penrith flaming out of finals contention.

Cleary was famously shown the door soon after.

This time, in eerily similar circumstances, a healthy Panthers roster has lost just one of their opening nine games and are flying high in second spot.

Barrett, who was brought back into the fold over the summer, has been largely credited for transforming the Panthers' into the second most potent attacking side this year.

It's why Cleary is keen on keeping Barrett around, even if the former Manly mentor agrees to terms with the Bulldogs on an expected three-year deal next week.

"I'm positive it's not going to be (a distraction). I've actually been through this five years ago. Times have changed and this situation is different," Cleary said.

"It just depends on the circumstances. I think everybody is well aware Baz wants to get back into the head-coaching ranks.

"And everyone is well aware he's spoken to the Bulldogs, so it's completely transparent and everyone knows the story.

"As far as Baz goes, he turns up each day here and does his job and we're right behind him. As long as that's the case, we can all just get on with life."

Cleary is also confident, should the Barrett appointment be made official, he won't be poaching the Panthers' seemingly endless supply of prospects.

The likes of Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton come off contract next year and could be given bigger roles in Belmore.

"You've only got to look back in time and see how many young halves have been destroyed when putting too much emphasis and expectation on them too soon," Cleary said of Burton.

"I feel we're well equipped to give him the development he needs to be at his very best, and we're looking forward to that over the next few years.''

The 12th-placed Cowboys have made three changes to the side pumped by the Sydney Roosters last week, with an injured Valentine Holmes the leading casualty.

STATS THAT MATTER

* If the Cowboys win this match, it will square the overall ledger between these two sides to 20 wins each in their 40th contest.

* Penrith are the league's equal-best in average plays inside the opposition 20-metre zone (36), while conceding the least (23).