On the gym walls of many Ivan Cleary-coached football teams has been a ladder.
Not your ordinary competition-points variety, but a ladder that measured his team against the 15 others based on the first and last seven minutes of each half in games.
They are the seven-minute periods that make or break football games.
The same periods broke Anthony Griffin when he coached a Panthers team that struggled out of the blocks. The same periods have made the current Panthers team a force to be reckoned with.
Only the Sydney Roosters have conceded less points in the first and last seven minutes of each half throughout the opening seven rounds of the season.
The Eels, Panthers, Storm and Roosters went into round seven as the top four teams on the NRL ladder. It’s no surprise they are the same four teams that have the best defensive record during the 28 minutes of the game that Cleary believes requires a greater level of concentration to win football games.
It’s the kind of attention to detail that has been ingrained in his son Nathan, who throughout his career has shown he can produce the goods in clutch moments.
Game of thrones
He was dubbed the prince of Penrith as a teenager. But following the departure of James Maloney, Nathan Cleary has taken his place on the throne at the foot of the mountains, leading a resurgence that has transformed the Panthers into title contenders in 2020.
“Nathan played second fiddle to Jimmy, for sure,” the Panthers coach said.
“And that was fair enough because Jimmy was the senior voice by a long way. Nat and Jimmy are probably a bit too similar. It doesn’t mean it can’t work, because I think they showed at various times together that it can work really well.
“But I guess for long-term success, we needed to make a change. It was good timing. Jimmy was at the end of his career looking for something else, and Nat’s starting to head towards the prime of his career.”
Nathan’s development over the past 12 months is highlighted in the below video analysis, which shows just how much he struggled to stamp his authority on the Panthers in 2019, and how much that has changed this season.
Video analysis 1: Cleary finds his voice without Maloney
“He was always developing, he always had a really good attitude,” Maloney said.
“The biggest thing was for all the hype and how much he had done by an early age, Nath had a really good self-awareness of where his game was at. He was never going to be a kid who thought he was killing it and believing in his own hype.
“He always had a fair assessment of where he’s at. At the end of the day, he’s only 22. He’s still a baby. There are plenty of more things he’ll learn and develop.”
Cleary never got frustrated being the understudy, despite Penrith struggling for form throughout 2019. The NSW halfback believes the two seasons under the now Catalans playmaker is a large reason for his success in 2020.
“Yeah, there was times where we didn’t quite gel because we were so similar,” Cleary said.
“But I learnt a lot off him; things that I wasn’t doing before he came to the club. He’s a pretty good person to learn off. He’s done everything in the game and is an outstanding player. I definitely take those years here under him as valuable and have been able to mould that into my game the best I can this year.”
Ivan Cleary has plenty of mantras and philosophies he bases his coaching around. His No.1 motto is “the star of the team is the team”. He also places emphasis on the play-the-ball speed of his halves. Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary have two of the fastest play-the-ball speeds of any halves in the NRL. It has been the foundation of Penrith’s success in 2020.
Interestingly, four of the top eight fastest play-the-ball speeds of NRL halves are players who have been coached by Ivan Cleary throughout their careers (Luai, Nathan, Luke Brooks and Shaun Johnson)
The impact of the quick play-the-ball was highlighted in the below vision of Nathan Cleary’s running game against South Sydney last week.
Video analysis 2: The importance of a quick play-the-ball
“He’s spoken about it a number of times through the pre-season,” Nathan said.
“He always likes me and Jarome running the ball. He always tells us ‘if there’s nothing really on, try and get a quick play-the-ball so we can play off the back of that the next play. Jarome is doing that really well.”
Three things changed in the golden west over the summer. Maloney left and Trent Barrett came back. But the most significant factor in the rise of Nathan Cleary has been the return of hooker Apisai Koroisau.
His ability to attract markers and keep the defence second-guessing has given his halves more time and space to set up plays and inject themselves into the contest.
“He is probably in the prime of his career,” Ivan Cleary said.
“I reckon he manipulates markers as good as anyone in the comp. He’s also now become an 80-minute player consistently, which he possibly could have done at Manly but he wasn’t used that way. But on and off the field, he’s been good in terms of leadership. He’s had a great influence on and off the field through leadership and personality as well.”
When coaches talk about Koroisau’s strength as a dummy half, they talk about his tempo.It’s a quality that makes him a constant threat, as highlighted in the video below.
Video analysis 3: the impact of Api Koroisau
“I would describe tempo as being able to manipulate the defensive line to create space for other people,” Ivan Cleary said.
“If you’re playing with tempo, the defence is confused as to when they should go to you or should they not. You want to get the defensive line a little bit staggered because there are guys moving faster than someone else. It’s just deception, pretty much, and he’s one of the best at it.”
The influence of Trent Barrett
Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic gets deja vu watching the Panthers play in 2020. “Trent Barrett’s hands are all over that team,” Trbojevic said of his former coach, who is now Ivan Cleary’s assistant at Penrith.
“Baz did all the attack at Manly and you can see so many similarities with the way Penrith are playing. They look very similar. He’s a really good coach. He used Api well at Manly.
“Penrith’s middles and back-rowers generate a lot of quick play-the-balls and Api gets a roll on off the back of it and plays his deceptive style. That seems to be helping Nathan. Api’s released a lot of pressure off Nathan, because he is so good at holding people up, it makes Nathan’s job a lot easier.”
Barrett has helped transform the Panthers’ stuttering attack, working with the players he groomed during his last stint at the club. He once ran the club’s halves academy, helping develop Cleary, Luai and Tyrone May when they were coming through the system.
“Baz did attack for me the last time he was out here,” Ivan Cleary said.
“He’s got a certain way he likes to do it and he’s very good at it. He told me what he wanted to do, his ideas and plans, and I thought they were good and that’s what we’ve gone with.
“Trent uses Api’s strength as much as he can, which is what he did at Manly. He touches the ball first and the most, so naturally there’s similarities. And he also has a long-standing relationship with Jarome and Nat. The timing was perfect.”
Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald