Ivan Cleary's staggering admission about quitting Penrith Panthers

The Panthers weren't always the NRL premiership powerhouse they were in 2022, with Ivan Cleary revealing how close he came to walking away from it all.

Ivan Cleary celebrates winning the 2022 NRL premiership for the Penrith Panthers with son Nathan.
Ivan Cleary nearly walked away from the Penrith Panthers after the first year of his comeback. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Ivan Cleary's tenure as head coach of the Penrith Panthers has been an overwhelming tale of success in recent seasons, but it wasn't always so for the back-to-back premiership coach. Months after securing a second NRL premiership, Cleary has revealed he had been astonishingly close to giving the game up as recently as three years ago.

First arriving with the Panthers in 2012 after getting his start as head coach with the New Zealand Warriors, Cleary struggled to a 45-55 record overall across three seasons, eventually deciding to move on from the club. He would then sign with Wests Tigers, coaching them for two years starting in 2017.

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The one-year break between his initial stint with the Panthers and his time with the Tigers yielded few results, with Cleary eventually returning to Penrith for the 2019 season. However, that first year coaching his son Nathan was a disaster, with the Panthers missing the finals for the first time since 2015.

The coach has now revealed to long-time friend and former Penrith staffer Hayden Knowles that he had considered walking away from the sport after the 2019 season. Knowles, the former head of performance at Penrith, prompted Cleary into discussing his return to Penrith.

On the Get the Edge podcast, Knowles prompted the conversation by saying Cleary was 'not that far away' from packing it in after Penrith finished 10th with an 11-13 record. It was an uninspiring start to what would ultimately become a premiership-winning appointment.

"It sounds a little dramatic, but it's true," Cleary said of his desire to walk away heading into the 2020 season. He said the pressure of the game and expectations on the team had begun to affect those closest to him.

Cleary would hang tough though, improving in the 2020 season before coaching Panthers to back-to-back grand final victories in 2021 and 2022.

NRL salary cup announcement leaves stakeholders fuming

Meanwhile, the NRL is facing a wave of backlash across the rugby league community in Australia despite making a record-breaking announcement about next season's salary cap. League officials revealed in December details of the record salary cap figures for 2023 that include huge increases for the men's and women's competitions.

However, the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) says they were blindsided by Friday's announcement and accused the game's powerbrokers of "disrespecting" the players. The RLPA accused the NRL of failing to reach an agreement with the association or its players before unveiling the new deals.

Clubs will be able to spend up to $12.1 million on players next season - a record figure and an increase from the 2022 figure of $9.6 million - with a rise in the minimum salary for a top 30-squad to $120,000. NRLW sides have been given a beefed-up salary cap of $884,000 for next year, although no season start date or length has yet been determined. The figures unveiled on Friday only apply to the 2023 season.

Nathan Cleary celebrates a try with Penrith teammates.
The sudden announcement of the 2023 salary cap was a win for players and clubs, but left many offside regardless. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

With talks stalling between the NRL and the RLPA over the next collective bargaining agreement (CBA) - which was due to be finalised in October - the new deal is seen as a big win for a lot of players and clubs, who can now start properly finalising their signings and retentions for next season.

Many chief executives had voiced concerns that the protracted CBA talks between head office and the RLPA was making it difficult for them to make decisions around the recruitment and retention of players. While clubs finally have financial certainty, they will not suddenly be flush with cash given many contracts signed in recent months had ratchet clauses inserted which ensured pay rose in line with the cap.

It sets the scene for a tense meeting between the NRL and RLPA when they are expected to resume talks in the new year, with the players' union accusing head office of undermining their attempts to strike agreement on the CBA. The RLPA says it was not properly consulted about key details of the salary cap changes and was only notified minutes before the announcement.

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