League: Cleary feels at home in role with Kiwis

By Michael Brown in Leeds

Kiwis co-coach Ivan Cleary hopes to point head coach Stephen Kearney in the right direction at the World Cup. Photo / Getty Images
Kiwis co-coach Ivan Cleary hopes to point head coach Stephen Kearney in the right direction at the World Cup. Photo / Getty Images

There are a number of similarities between the two - just don't try telling Ivan Cleary he's the Wayne Bennett of the 2013 Kiwis.

Bennett's coaching CV is more enlarged than Cleary's but both are good thinkers of the game, possess a calm persona and are fairly private. Crucially, they are also both good appointments for the Kiwis.

Bennett was the ideal foil for Kearney in 2008. The former Kiwis second-rower had barely unlaced his boots after a distinguished playing career when he was handed the New Zealand coaching role and needed someone of Bennett's experience beside him, especially as it was barely six months out from the World Cup after Gary Kemble's sacking.

Thankfully, circumstances are considerably different in 2013.

Cleary knows a lot of the players and the New Zealand "way" after 10 years as a player and coach at the Warriors and his personality fits easily beside Kearney and Tony Iro, who crossed over from assistant to manager earlier this year after Tony Kemp's resignation.

Cleary lost little time in accepting the role when approached and he's glad he did.

"It's great," the Penrith coach says. "It's different being able to just focus on one aspect rather than the whole management of everything. It has been good fun.

"This isn't something I had ever thought about but, like a lot of things in life, when it comes up you get an instant feel and the instant feel I got was I would love to [be involved]. I watched the Anzac test this year and went, 'Wow, these guys can really win the World Cup.' I still haven't changed my mind, but we will still have to play well."

The Kiwis' attack, Cleary's primary focus, has been both brilliant and a little ragged at times throughout the tournament and he was hoping for more improvement against Scotland this morning (NZT).

They have a simple game plan based around forward power, building pressure and a stingy defence but also have plenty of natural ball players and Cleary says it's challenging trying to find the right balance.

He arrived late into camp, only a couple of days before the first game with Samoa, because he was trekking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea as part of a Panthers leadership programme. Winning the World Cup is no walk in the park but Cleary is enjoying what he has to work with.

"The calibre of guys we have here, it's fun working with them because it's all very well trying to come up with things that might work but if you've got the cattle it makes it a lot easier," he says.

It's why, for instance, he wouldn't have taken any other job to be involved in the World Cup. He had little interest in working with one of the minnows who face challenges of a different kind to the Kiwis.

"I just come in and the organisation is great, the coaching staff are great, the players are great. It's a good place to be around. My job here is pretty easy, really."

It hasn't always been that way at Penrith, where he has spent the past two seasons since leaving the Warriors. They are attempting to rebuild under Phil Gould and have implemented a five-year plan.

Last year was difficult as the Panthers finished 15th (the Warriors were 14th by virtue of a better points differential) but this year they surprised many who predicted they would be wooden spooners by finishing in 10th, two points outside the top eight.

It helped vindicate decisions to offload high-earning but under-performing players such as Michael Jennings, Luke Lewis and Michael Gordon which was a challenging time in Cleary's journey.

"It's hard but you have to do what you think is right," Cleary says. "Sometimes it doesn't please everybody. It's just about making the place work and everyone needs to be moving in the same direction. Everyone now is very much aligned. If you don't have that, it's even harder to get through those tough periods. It's very strong, very solid, and that augurs well for the next few years."

His main goal is more immediate and the signs are relatively good, too. It's likely Bennett would approve.

- APNZ

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