SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – August 4, 2017: SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – SH NEWS/Sports: 040817: Story by Michael Chammis: Portrait of former Rugby League football player and current West (Balmain) Tigers Coach Ivan Cleary, with his son Nathan who play’s for the Penrith Panthers. The two teams will come up against each other during this weekend’s round. Family loyalties are light-heratedly divided by the impending clash. (Photo by James Alcock/Fairfax Media).Just before Ivan Cleary’s shock departure from Penrith at the end of the 2015 season, he sat down with son Nathan to discuss how long it would take before he would get a taste of NRL football.
“He said it probably won’t be until 2018,” Nathan recalls as he looks over to his old man on the back porch of their Leonay home.
Really, Ivan? That long?
“Yeah, that was pretty bad judgment from my end,” Ivan says.
It’s all hypothetical, but the common consensus is that had Ivan not been surprisingly moved on from the Panthers, “son of Ivan” would still be just that.
“Things have changed,” Ivan says. “I’ve been ‘Nathan’s dad’ for a while now.”
Ivan never wanted to leave the Panthers. He still can’t understand why he isn’t the coach of the team he built from the ground up. More on that later.
But here’s why those who know the Clearys well regard them as stand-up people.
Because even though he would have loved to have been walking into the home ground’s coaches box at Pepper Stadium on Sunday to call the shots against Wests Tigers, he’d change nothing because of the doors his departure has opened for his boy.
“Me leaving has probably been the best thing for Nathan,” Ivan says. “If that’s what we take out of this then I’m happy. It probably hasn’t been the worst thing for me either. It’s funny how things work out.”
Funny, you say? A bit like how you “accidentally” undercooked Nathan’s chicken for dinner this week?
“That was a mistake,” Ivan fires back.
“Mistake?” the 19-year-old asks. “Mine was the only one undercooked.”
Sounds like sabotage from where we’re sitting.
“Sadly, it’s true, but an honest mistake. It must have been a bit dark out here on the barbie,” Ivan says with a smile from ear to ear.
There’s something eerie about sitting down with the Clearys. They look the same. They speak the same. They have the same mannerisms. They even think about rugby league in the same way.
“Yeah, but he’s got some pretty lame dad jokes,” Nathan says.
Like the one about Nathan not being able to find his car keys on game day this Sunday, perhaps?
In a way, Ivan’s legacy at the Panthers lives on through his son. A chip off the old block who spent his childhood trying to escape the shadow of his father.
“When I was younger I didn’t really like it too much,” Nathan said of living with the “son of Ivan'” tag.
“It was annoying. But I like it now. I can appreciate it now. Some people used to think I got special treatment because of who I was. That used to piss me off the most. Once dad was out of the picture, everyone accepted it and I’ve been fine with it.
“I think I’m on the way to being my own man. The last two years, people haven’t been saying ‘you’re Ivan’s son’.”
So the question on everyone’s lips since Ivan signed with the Tigers has been whether father and son will reunite?
“It couldn’t work if he’s not established,” Ivan believes. “If he’s established then that’s different.”
So in other words, get the cheque book ready Gus, because the man you sacked is coming for the man you need most.
“I like him as a player,” Ivan jokes. “And obviously I like him as a person … sometimes.
“But at the end of the day, it’ll be his decision. I have discussed it with him and with them [Panthers], too. But I’m not his manager. I’m involved so I’ll listen to what they propose.
“But really he’s 19, just started playing first grade and has two years to go on his contract. I don’t think he should be in a hurry. He knows that. I think the Panthers should just enjoy what he’s doing for them at the moment. If he wants to stay, he can stay.”
As for Nathan, he couldn’t be happier with his surroundings at the Panthers. So much so he removed a clause allowing him to leave the club if his father left. But even he can’t hide the appeal of playing under his father in the future.
“I definitely think down the track I’d be keen to do it,” Nathan says. “I can’t lock anything in. But you don’t know what can happen in two years. I’m happy at the Panthers and when the time comes we can talk about what’s next. I just have to get out there, be consistent and stay in first grade.”
Yes two years is a long time in rugby league. In fact, two years ago Ivan was at the helm of the Panthers and despite a horror season plagued by injury, looked as though he was on the verge of something special at the foot of the mountains.
But without notice and in arguably the most contentious coach sacking in recent memory, Phil Gould decided it was the end of the road for the Ivan Cleary regime.
Ivan, who on Sunday returns home to Penrith for the first time since his sacking, insists he’s not bitter. But that relationship hasn’t, and will never be, the same.
“I haven’t spoken to him a lot since, maybe a couple of times,” Ivan says of Gould. “But I don’t know if that will ever be the same, if I’m being honest. I’m not bitter about that. It just didn’t quite work out like it was meant to.”
Gould claimed Ivan was “tired” and then acted in what he thought were the best interests of the Panthers when he removed the man he once coached at the Roosters in the 1990s.
“I don’t agree with that,” Ivan says of Gould’s claims he was tired. “It was a hard year, that’s for sure. I’ll admit that for a number of reasons. But it happens all the time. I don’t think … it’s a little condescending actually. If he actually thinks that, then that’s OK. But I don’t agree with it.”
Nathan wasn’t always destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. It wasn’t until he was 12 years old did this “soccer skinny boy” living in Auckland tried his hand at rugby league. That experience alone almost saw him lost from the game forever.
“I’ll never forget it,” Nathan says. “I came from a soccer game to play an open weight game of footy. These kids … I just couldn’t believe it. We got flogged. I was 12. A real soccer skinny boy.
“These kids were huge. I mean, they had like moustaches. I remember coming halfway through the game watching someone I knew getting carried off with a dislocated shoulder. I was like, ‘what have I gotten myself into’.”
That following year he moved into a weighted competition.
“If it wasn’t for that, there’s every chance he never would have played again,” Ivan admits.
“When you move house, or in our situation, move country after I left the Warriors, one of the things you have to do is sell it to the kids. That was one of the ones with Nat, telling him the footy is going to be totally different. It’s only luck he was playing at all.”
Thankfully, for Penrith – and NSW – he did.
Yes, we know. Origin is 12 months away. We shouldn’t put pressure on the kid. But how can you not after watching what this teenager has produced on a football field since he was handed his chance last year.
After all, not even his dad thought he was ready for the NRL and he’s still wiping the egg of his face.
It’s an awkward one to get into. Phil Gould says he isn’t ready. Of course, Nathan has to say he isn’t ready. So what does his father, and one of the best judges of talent in rugby league think about the debate about his son’s potential promotion to the NSW team as early as next year?
“If they are looking for a cultural shift, he would suit that,” Ivan admits. “But they have to make a commitment to him for three or four years and have some experience around him.”
It’s ironic that when Ivan talks about the skills his son possesses, he references Origin.
“He doesn’t do TV passes,” Ivan says. “He does what’s needed at the time. He plays like a Queenslander, actually.
“He tackles, he doesn’t make errors, he kicks well, he supports. He just does what he is supposed to for the team. He’s had that in him since he was a kid. The higher the grades he’s gone up, the more valuable those traits have been.
“He’ll go out this weekend and do the same thing he does every other. I wish he didn’t, but he will.”
Ivan isn’t a mushy kind of guy. But even with his son sitting next to him, he can’t hide his pride in what his eldest son has made of himself.
“I’m very proud,” Ivan says. “Not just about footy, but how he carries himself.
“He’s already edged into that role-model phase. Kids really like him. He takes his time to go and see kids. The way he handles himself on the field as well. I’m massively proud of him.”