It’s taken just three weeks for a door to open within the coaching ranks of the NRL – and that might just suit Ivan Cleary.
With the sudden dismissal of Wests Tigers mentor Jason Taylor, Cleary’s name was among the first thrown in the ring as a potential replacement – alongside former Tigers Holden Cup coach Todd Payten. Cleary, who played alongside the outgoing Taylor in the 1994 and 1995 seasons at the North Sydney Bears, then enjoyed a 10-year coaching career at the Warriors and Panthers before being moved on from the latter in 2015. Today, he works as a consultant for the NRL’s football department and was recently announced as the coach of Lebanon for the Rugby League World Cup.
The 46-year-old wouldn’t be drawn on his rumoured move to Concord, but confirmed he still had the desire to be an NRL head coach.
“Yeah I do actually,” Cleary tells NSWRL.com.au, explaining his motivation behind the Lebanon role. “I just missed it. I miss coaching so it’s just a good chance to coach again and it’s something that’s different.
“It’s just a new challenge in many respects and that’s exciting; it’s probably good for your own professional development as well.”
Cleary has taken teams to the finals on five separate occasions, including the Warriors’ run to the grand final in 2011. There were obvious differences between the Auckland-based Warriors and Cleary’s most recent stint at the foot of the mountains, but the two roles had one thing in common.
“The similarity is that there was a clear mandate to develop at both those clubs; neither of them really were recruitment clubs and they were both rebuilding,” Cleary says. “Both programs weren’t in great shape when I started, so there was a fair bit of work to do from the bottom up – and I enjoy that.”
Only the toughest critic would claim that the Tigers are “rebuilding” in season 2017 – the club finished just one point outside the top eight last year – but a relatively youthful spine and a dismal start to the season in all three grades mean a steady hand is required. The development coaching role is one that Cleary relishes.
“That’s all I’ve really done to be honest,” Cleary adds. “It’s really rewarding to see young guys come into first grade.
“There’s a bit of pain associated with it because it takes a while for them to get a handle on (playing in the NRL) but yeah, I enjoyed that process.”
If Ivan Cleary is to return to the world of NRL coaching, of course, he will face a challenge which never existed before: the prospect of leading a team against his son, Penrith halfback Nathan.
“You know what, I have no idea what that would be like,” Cleary laughs. “It would be a good problem, that’s how I look at it.
“I’m pretty hopeful that he’ll be able to have another good season; one of his strengths is consistency and that’s pretty evident already (in 2017).”
It’s anyone’s guess how long the Tigers will take to find a permanent replacement for Taylor, with assistant Andrew Webster taking the reins in the interim. In the 2014 Dally M Coach of the Year, however, there is already a potential willing candidate.