Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Roll up, roll up, come judge a Coach. Yes, that’s right Ladies and Gentlemen, girls and boys, here is your chance to let your inner Neanderthal loose.

Dare to frequent that judgemental and intolerant side as it prospers mightily. It’s okay, you can do it. Go on, give it a go. You’re allowed to; after all, he is a professional coach earning several hundred thousand dollars per annum. What with it being the end of the NRL season, and, of course, the end of Ivan Cleary’s rein as head coach of the New Zealand Warriors.

Now is the hour to pontificate over the legacy that Cleary leaves behind as he heads off in search of new horizons with the Penrith Panthers.

He may be gone, but will he be remembered as a success or as Ivan the terrible?

Maybe it will turn out to be somewhere in between. But, let us investigate.

For Cleary is the club’s longest serving coach in its seventeen season history, with six seasons under his belt. Some would say that in itself is grounds for a commendation.

Coaches have come and coaches have gone, at the Warriors, in an ever evolving turnstile that at times ratcheted up its speed to the stage that it made the speed of light in a vacuum look tediously slow. So much then for Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

There was John Monie, Frank Endecott, Mark Graham and Daniel Anderson before him. Not one of them lasted more than three seasons in charge, and more often than not, it had turned to custard well before then. Though, to be fair to Anderson, he did get two good seasons and a grand final out of his charges before the player revolt set in.

With Cleary steering the good ship Warrior, there was to be no revolt. Not even a whisper of one. Yes, there was the occasional unhappy chappy whose ego didn’t relish the thought of having been told that his services were no longer required. But, then, how often do you hear of discarded player sending the coach a Christmas card? More likely a poison pen letter.

So Cleary had a group that played for him. Not only that, but when it was announced that he was departing at the end of the season, those players continued to put in. Really, it speaks volumes for the man.

In his six seasons with the club, Cleary got his charges into finals football on four occasions. Take out 2009 which was an unmitigated disaster, in part due to the tragic death of rising star, Sonny Fai, and 2006 which started on a sour note with the club deducted competition points for a not insignificant breach of the salary cap. Of the two, the latter would have ended in a finals appearance had the previous management not been so deviously minded.

So, in reality, you can say Cleary acheived five good seasons in a coaching sense. Of 2009, though the death of Fai contributed, there were mistakes made. The squad that year had visibly bulked up. Aerobic fitness had been sacrificed for strength as Cleary and the club’s trainers searched for an advantage over other clubs. Needless to say, it didn’t pay dividends. To Cleary’s credit, he admitted the approach had been flawed and hadn’t worked.

It takes a big man to admit one has made a mistake, and an even bigger one to publically take the heat for it. But, he did.

Despite the numerous finals appearances, there have been those that could never quite comprehend how there would often be such wild fluctuations in form under Cleary’s watch. This season alone, normality has not been a regular attendee in the first grade side’s form line. More often than not, they have thought nothing of losing four in a row, then to turn around and win four straight, only to revert to a losing streak once again.

So, consistency within a season wasn’t always Cleary’s strong point, despite usually finding a way to get his side into the top eight. Perhaps this can be put down to the fact that he is still in the relative infancy of his coaching career.

During all of this, the Warriors had already begun to change from being a club that relied on recruiting the talent they required, to being a development club. Sure, they still go to market on occasions, when the need arises.

But that need has subsided over the last couple of years as their development programme starts to reap rewards. There has been Ben Mautalino, Russell Packer and Elijah Taylor in the forwards. And, of course, how could anyone forget the incomparable talent of the phenomenal Shaun Johnson.

Cleary has done a fabulous job of nurturing the rising superstar as the coaching staff worked on the young man’s defence. For sure, it must have been frustrating for Johnson, wanting to get onto the park and prove himself to the world, but been held back and, instead, being sensibly eased into the fray when he was genuinely ready.

In time, he’ll thank Cleary for this patient approach.

All four have come out of their now highly successful Toyota Cup team.

This is a side that has dominated their competition for two years now.

Stacked full of mesmerising talent, the Warriors now have a production line of young stars of the future just waiting for their chance in first grade.

And that will be Cleary’s legacy. Not so much that he has coached the club’s top side to yesterday’s grand final, but the talent that he has been responsible for developing, that could see the Warriors dominate over the next ten years.

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