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Ivan Cleary hated being called “The Axe”. Mainly because it didn’t match his unassuming personality.
About to embark on his ninth season as head coach, Cleary had long been destined for the clipboard, say his former teammates. His playing style is reflected in his coaching demeanour.
Little fazes him and Cleary rarely lets his guard down. To call him bland would be an insult to the way the 43-year-old carries himself. While he doesn’t court headlines and rarely finishes a post-match media conference red-faced, Cleary is methodical and measured in his approach.
One-time teammate Greg Florimo, who spent two seasons playing alongside Cleary at the Bears, said few were tougher.
“We defended next to each other,” Florimo said. “I was at five-eighth and he was playing centre and he had this ability to read the play.
“He was quite punishing in defence and I used to call him ‘The Axe’ but he never liked that. He really used to come in and cut guys in half.”
Cleary may have been only 15 games into his first-grade career when he switched to the Bears from Manly but he made an immediate impact on his new teammates. Despite being surrounded by experienced players including Florimo, Mark Soden, Billy Moore and Gary Larson, Cleary always wanted to have his say.
“He always had input into team meetings and into our preparations during the week,” Florimo said. “He would always have insightful comments. He wouldn’t say too much but when he did everyone stood up and listened.
“He had an ability to hit the nail on the head. He was pretty eloquent and he always seemed just to say the right things. He was very even-tempered and I have never seen him lose his temper. He never got too excited when we put on a great play – you’d look for that smile but it never happened.”
The notion of not celebrating the highs too long and ensuring you don’t dwell on the lows is a familiar trait among the highest profile NRL coaches. Among those is Newcastle’s Wayne Bennett, who will oppose Cleary’s Panthers on Saturday night.
Cleary has not beaten Bennett since 2008 and can lay claim to only two wins against the veteran mentor in 12 outings. According to those that know both well, they share more than just coaching responsibilities.
New Panthers five-eighth Jamie Soward thrived under Bennett’s tutelage during his three year stint at St George Illawarra. Soward said he felt as comfortable with Cleary as he did under Bennett’s watch.
“Ivan is very hands on with his players and understands what they need at certain times,” Soward said. “He knows when I haven’t been 100 per cent and he knows when I haven’t been in a good mood. For me that has been a weight lifted that I have someone who really cares about how I’m feeling again and is trying to get the best out of me.
“It was very similar with Wayne. He was very hands on.
“Ivan knows when it’s training and he knows when you can laugh with the players. If you can get the trust of the players everyone will want to go and get that win. Having walked Kokoda [Track] with him you notice a few of his dry jokes but he gives as good as he gets.”
Like Bennett, Cleary has had to make tough decisions regarding decorated players. Bennett told Wally Lewis and Scott Prince that they had limited futures at the Broncos while Cleary has pressed ahead at Penrith after telling Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings to move on.
Cleary jumped into coaching in 2006 as head coach of the Warriors, four years after retiring. Among his closest friends is his former New Zealand teammate Kevin Campion, who won a premiership under Bennett at the Broncos in 2000.
Campion described Cleary as a “complex character” but said Cleary and Bennett both had little time for those who put themselves before the team.
“Selfish players rattle their cages,” Campion said. “They don’t put up with big-heads. If you’re not a quality person first and foremost, you have no chance of playing first grade in Wayne or Ivan’s teams.”
Their man management is similar too, according to Campion, who was an assistant coach alongside Cleary at the Warriors in 2005.
“Wayne treated me no different to Alfie Langer,” Campion said. “Wayne used to say to me that I’d have to play five bad games in a row to be dropped. You’d get that confidence out of that support from the coach. I know Ivan has the same qualities.
“Ivan was destined for coaching. He has a calmness about him. When he was a player he led by example. People forget how tough he was.”
Cleary’s work ethic evolved alongside arguably the first “professional” rugby league trainer in Gary Larson at the Bears. Larson said Cleary was among the most dedicated.
“His preparation was faultless,” Larson said. “He always had his say on things and he had a formula when he was a player and it’s looking like he has a formula as a coach and that’s working for him.”
Cleary exceeded most expectations with his side last year. Excitement has now grown at the Panthers as he moves closer toward his end goal of winning a title, which has eluded him as a player and coach.
It starts against Bennett on Saturday night.