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MICHAEL HAGAN: Why Cleary should win coach of the year

There are a few candidates deserving of the honour but I think for the way he’s got Penrith looking like an unstoppable machine, Ivan Cleary deserves to be the Dally M Coach of the Year.

Craig Fitzgibbon and Todd Payten have done well to get Cronulla and the Cowboys back into the top four and Kevin Walters deserves praise for rebuilding Brisbane while Craig Bellamy’s defied predictions of Melbourne’s demise yet again.

But for the way he’s managed to make the Panthers a juggernaut that can sustain injuries and suspensions, Cleary gets my vote.

When your team is expected to win the premiership it’s not often you get the Coach of the Year award.

Penrith have been dominant when they’ve had their full team on the park but what’s impressed me the most is how they’ve gone when the top players have been out with injuries or suspension, and how they coped during the representative period when they had seven guys playing for NSW and several more lining up in the mid-year Tests.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Cleary made the bold call to rest all seven of them the weekend after Origin III and it paid off when the depleted side knocked off Wests Tigers.

And particularly over the last few weeks when Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and James Fisher-Harris have been out, the Panthers have again brought in new faces but the systems haven’t changed.

They obviously miss class players like those three who are their two best halves and most impactful middle forward but the way the team plays their footy, the new faces come in and do the job no matter what.

Penrith were way too strong for the Raiders a few weeks ago in Canberra and then they got beaten at home when Dylan Edwards was also out injured.

He’s nearly as important to the team as those other three and lock Isaah Yeo.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see him finish up the top of the Dally M Medal standings and with Tom Trbojevic likely to miss the World Cup with his shoulder problem and doubts about Kalyn Ponga with his concussions, Edwards is a fair chance of making his first Kangaroos squad as the back-up to James Tedesco.

His return last week against Souths was part of the reason why they stayed in the contest the whole game and were able to ice it a few minutes out from full-time when Liam Martin scored.

They really haven’t changed the way they play much even when they’re down on strikepower like the game against the Rabbitohs.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 18: Dylan Edwards of the Panthers makes a break to score a tryduring the round 23 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Penrith Panthers at Accor Stadium, on August 18, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Dylan Edwards makes a break to score. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Cleary has drilled into them the Penrith DNA of competing on every play and never giving up. It takes a really special team to do that. 

Their physicality and their execution doesn’t drop off – the mindset they continue to show is intimidating for the opposition.

Yeo, Edwards and Api Koroisau at hooker took the reins of the team in the absence of Cleary and Luai. That has meant Jaeman Salmon and Sean O’Sullivan in the halves haven’t had to overplay their hands.

And now they’ve got Luai back this Friday and Cleary returning in the finals, they’re going to be hard to stop and the coach deserves a lot of credit for the consistent, professional approach the team has taken all year.

Even though they lost Kurt Capewell, Matt Burton and Paul Momirovski from the team that won the Grand Final last year, they have absorbed that collective loss and it’s probably going to be the same next season when Koroisau and Viliame Kikau head elsewhere.

As far as the other Coach of the Year contenders, I see Payten and Fitzgibbon as very similar. 

They both made big decisions going into this year about who they wanted to control their team and it’s paid off.

Payten had the confidence to go with Tom Dearden in the halves even though he had a pretty tough season in 2021 and paired him with a key recruit in Chad Townsend when a lot of people thought his best years were behind him.

Chad Townsend passes

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

He went and spoke to Townsend personally to say “come to our football team, this is what we’re going to do and I think you can play a big part in it”. I saw he said recently that Payten’s chat was a big reason in him coming rather than take the easy option of staying home at Cronulla to finish his career.

Not every coach can sell the value of an organisation and as a young coach, being able to do that is a real feather in his cap. 

Fitzy also identified the right playmaker that he wanted and went and got him with Nicho Hynes.

They were both smart enough to know they needed someone to organise the team on the field and an experienced leader to show the young guys what to do in Peta Hiku at the Cowboys and Dale Finucane at the Sharks.

You can see improvement in the defensive capabilities of each team – it’s so much better than last year.

Walters also deserves plaudits for Brisbane coming from 14th last season to probably making the finals. They’ve dropped off a bit the past few weeks with a few of their younger blokes hitting the wall a bit and the suspension to Pat Carrigan taking the wind out of their sails. 

And then there’s the old fox in Bellamy. For him to be able to again shake off a few key departures in Hynes, Finucan and Josh Addo-Carr, get through another Origin period, reinvent his team late in the season by switching Cameron Munster to fullback and picking up David Nofoaluma, and still be in the top four is an amazing effort.

Craig Bellamy waves to Melbourne Storm supporters

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

To be able to overcome the loss of Ryan Papenhuyzen and not suffer significantly, that talks to the strength of the Storm system and the culture built up over a long period of time.

It’s the team first, always. We saw that recently when Brandon Smith got three weeks for calling the ref a cheat and got told to go train on his own. 

While a younger team like Brisbane looks like it’s dropping off, Bellamy and Cleary have their sides primed for the finals. That’s one of the big battles of being a coach – keeping a team motivated and playing at a high level for the whole season, and then having to do it again for the four weeks of the finals.

That’ll be the new challenge for Payten and Fitzgibbon even though they’ve both done it before as assistants, it’s a totally new ball game when you’re the head coach. 

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