Ivan Cleary staking his claim as greatest coach of the NRL era

Ivan and Nathan Cleary, pictured here after Penrith's grand final victory over Parramatta.
Ivan and Nathan Cleary celebrate after Penrith's grand final victory over Parramatta. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Is Ivan Cleary on track to become the greatest coach of the NRL era?

It's certainly time to discuss it because the Panthers boss has time – and the team – on his side to rival the best we've seen after moving into the rarefied air of a back-to-back premiership winner following Penrith's convincing 28-12 win over Parramatta.

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Cleary has guided Penrith to the last three grand finals for two wins and a narrow defeat.

And don’t forget he took a fairly modest Warriors side to the 2011 decider against a red-hot Manly.

Most coaches would kill to have one grand final appearance on their CV. Cleary has four.

He now sits alongside Des Hasler on two premierships, one behind Trent Robinson and Craig Bellamy.

Wayne Bennett tops the list with four titles in the NRL era.

Bennett's premiership-winning days are over, Bellamy has one more year to add to his tally and it's hard to envisage Hasler lifting the Provan-Summons trophy again as his career at Manly winds down.

That leaves Robinson and Cleary to fight it out for pole position.

In Cleary's favour, Penrith's premiership window hasn't been fitted with Crimsafe.

It looks like being open for many years to come.

Star playmakers Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai are 24 and 25 respectively, fullback Dylan Edwards is 26 and skipper Isaah Yeo 27.

Not one of their grand final squad has hit 30.

Isaah Yeo and Ivan Cleary, pictured here after Penrith's win over Parramatta in the NRL grand final.
Isaah Yeo and Ivan Cleary look on after Penrith's win over Parramatta in the NRL grand final. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images) (Cameron Spencer via Getty Images)

Api Koroisau backs Panthers to continue dominance

And while the salary cap will eat away at their ranks – Viliame Kikau and Api Koroisau have played their last game for the Panthers – the bulk of the squad is tied up and don't plan to leave anytime soon.

Why would they? The good times look likely to keep rolling.

The Panthers are already $4 favourites to make it a three-peat in 2023.

"I can’t see it ending any time soon," Koroisau said when asked about Penrith's future.

"They have won four grades this year so with the crop of kids coming through they are in really safe hands.

"They have got a great coach at the helm too and they have locked in some really great players so I think these guys are going to sweet for a long time."

Coach Cleary is only 51 and is at Penrith until at least the end of 2027.

In his second stint at the Panthers, he boasts an incredible 78-1-23 win/draw/loss record.

Far from being tired and burnt out – as Phil Gould once suggested – Cleary has another 10 years in him, if he so desires.

By then, we may be hailing him as the greatest ever.

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