'We made a mistake': Penrith's big admission after NRL premiership win

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Penrith's Nathan and Ivan Cleary are seen here holding the NRL premiership trophy.
Penrith's Nathan and Ivan Cleary pose together with the NRL premiership trophy.

Penrith CEO Brian Fletcher has conceded that the club was wrong to sack Ivan Cleary in 2015, after the coach delivered the Panthers their third premiership in Sunday night's NRL grand final against South Sydney.

Cleary finally got the monkey off his back after the 14-12 win over the Rabbitohs gave him a first NRL premiership, having experienced three previous grand final defeats as a player and coach.

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The coach's NRL triumph alongside son Nathan is a far cry from the pair's rocky first season at Penrith, during his second stint with the club.

Having snubbed Wests Tigers to work alongside his son at the Panthers, Cleary admits an underwhelming campaign in 2019 created some doubt about whether he'd made the right decision to return.

Sunday night's grand final victory dispelled any such doubts.

"We went through some hard times two years ago when I felt a bit guilty and his form wasn't where it could have been," Cleary said.

"But in the end I think that helped.

"When the siren went and I saw him out there, it's all about ... he's still my boy."

Nathan was only too aware of the heat his father had copped with his decision to return to Penrith after being sacked by the club in October 2015.

The 23-year-old halfback said the grand final win over the Rabbitohs - 12 months after an agonising defeat in the NRL decider against Melbourne - showed how wrong those critics had been.

"A lot of people wrote us off," the Panthers No.7 said.

"I have been dreaming of this moment since I was a kid.

"I was grateful to play one NRL game but to win a GF - and to do it with dad and people I have grown up with?

"It's special."

Pictured here, Penrith's Nathan Cleary hugs his father and coach Ivan after winning the 2021 NRL grand final.
Penrith's Nathan Cleary hugs his father and coach Ivan after winning the 2021 NRL grand final against South Sydney.

Ivan Cleary has a job for 'as long as he wants'

Speaking with the Sydney Morning Herald after the premiership triumph, Penrith's CEO admitted the club should never have sacked Ivan as their coach in the first place.

"Everybody makes mistakes. We made a mistake by getting rid of him in the first place," Fletcher said.

"At least we were smart enough under Dave's [chairman Dave O'Neill] leadership, and Dave was the main instigator suggesting to the board that we get him back. It's just magical. I'm sure we wouldn't be in the position we are in today if it wasn't for Ivan.

"Nobody was ever worried when we signed him. He knew what he was doing. He had a plan. He just had to assemble the right team and the right culture. That's what he's done."

Adding extra gloss to the Clearys' night - not only did Ivan get the premiership monkey off his back after three previous grand final defeats as a player or coach - he then got the honour of presenting the Clive Churchill Medal to his son as man-of-the-match.

Seen here, Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary celebrates after winning the 2021 Clive Churchill Medal.
Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal as man-of-the-match in the grand final. Pic: Getty

Ivan is contracted to the club until the end of the 2023 season but Fletcher says the job is essentially his as long as he wants it.

"I can't ever see Ivan Cleary leaving the place," Fletcher said. 

"The juniors are going to keep coming through, and we have one of the best coaches. With that development pathway, it's not as if our players are going to deteriorate. So where are you going to find a better coach than Ivan?

"He's here for as long as he wants to be here. I've never heard the board say anything differently. They love him. All the players love him. You can see how much this place means to him and how much he means to the people in it. I can't see him leaving."

with AAP

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