How Souths sent Penrith’s group chat silent and left Nathan Cleary sleepless
‘He’s an absolute freak and he has that whole left edge humming.’ It’s no wonder the Penrith group chat went eerily quiet and Nathan Cleary had a sleepless night after one particular Souths player carved up the Eels last weekend.
Fatima Kdouh , News Corp Australia Sports Newsroom
October 13, 2020 7:56am
At the tender age of 22, Cleary has garnered a reputation for being one of the calmest and most composed players in the NRL.
But as soon as referee Gerard Sutton blew the whistle in last weekend’s semi-final between the Rabbitohs and the Eels, the nerves kicked in and kept Cleary up all night.
“I know when I was watching and the game finished I was like ‘far out’,” Cleary said.
“I could barely sleep because I was just excited for the game this week.
“I kind of felt nervous watching it for some reason, the butterflies came back … I was just so excited to back into this training week.
“That’s the thing at the moment. Everyone is just enjoying their footy and being able to play.”
As Cleary lay in bed wide awake battling his finals insomnia, there was no respite coming from the team’s group chat.
Normally a place buzzing with activity, on Saturday night, the group chat was eerily silent.
So quiet, for a moment veteran back Josh Mansour wondered what his teammates were actually up to.
“There is not a single message, believe it or not … not one message. Everyone was just … I don’t know what … no doubt probably just watching the game,” Mansour said.
Josh Mansour says the group chat was eerily silent when the Rabbitohs played.
“But I think we just wanted to leave the talking. We didn’t want to switch on too early but now it’s time to start building to the big game.”
While Cleary put his nerves down to excitement ahead of Saturday’s preliminary final against South Sydney, the playmaker conceded Walker and the form of the Rabbitohs five-eighth would be on his mind this week.
“They’re on fire. Cody has been playing some unbelievable footy. He’s an absolute freak and he has that whole left edge humming,” Cleary said.
“Some of the stuff he pulls off is pretty crazy. Us on the right have to be on our A-game and defend really well and I think if we do that it will give us a massive chance of defending the game.”
The minor premiers will be forced to play in the club’s first preliminary final since 2014 without one of their key men in Fijian powerhouse Viliame Kikau.
Kikau was suspended for one game after he was found guilty of a grade one dangerous throw charge against Sydney Roosters enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.
But Cleary has backed his replacement in Kurt Capewell to get the job done on the left edge.
Capewell played in Cronulla’s preliminary final win in 2016 but missed out playing the club’s maiden title win against Melbourne Storm.
“He’s a very hard person to replace. Not many people play like him or are built like him but I think it’s a pretty handy replacement to have someone like Kurt Capewell coming in,” Cleary said.
“He’s played finals before too so we are really lucky in that aspect. It’s hard to replace ‘Kiks’ but I’m very happy with the replacement coming in.”
There will be plenty of support for Cleary and his father and coach Ivan, who has helped over 100 family members and friends secure tickets for Saturday night’s blockbuster at ANZ Stadium.
“There will be a fair few, I think dad got something like 107 tickets so all the family are coming down … it will be good to have that kind of support,” Cleary said.
“I’m sure the other guys will be getting a lot of tickets too, so it will be good.”
WE WILL BUILD A DYNASTY AT PANTHERS
— By Dean Ritchie
Penrith chairman Dave O’Neill has told of his club’s bold plans to build a historic and famous rugby league “dynasty” in Sydney’s west.
“That’s the plan,” O’Neill said ahead of Saturday night’s massive preliminary final against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium.
With a renewed winning culture, successful coach and unprecedented batch of brilliant local juniors, a proud O’Neill said the Panthers are poised to flourish and succeed long-term.
Nathan Cleary is leading the Panthers. Picture: Brett Costello
Penrith has won 16 successive matches — their last defeat was against Parramatta back on June 10 — and will start the grand final qualifier $1.50 favourites, according to the TAB, with Souths $2.60 outsiders.
While reluctant to repeat former club boss Phil Gould’s now infamous five-year plan for success, O’Neill did claim his club was seeking sustained success.
Asked if the decision to re-hire Ivan Cleary as head coach last year is now well and truly justified, O’Neill said: “One-hundred per cent but I don’t want to keep going over old ground.
“It’s been more than justified but it’s time for everybody to move on and get on with building a dynasty out at Penrith and, from what we have in place, I can’t see why we can’t.
“At the end of the day, the pathway we set out was to build our future. We didn’t do it as a short-term fix — it was to build the future of this club. In his own mind, Ivan knows where he wants to be, I’m pretty sure of that.
Viliame Kikau is a key player for the Panthers. Picture: Brett Costello
“I don’t want to put a five-plan in place but, from a board’s perspective, we just want to have a competitive side for as long as we possibly can.
“Not only that, because we are a development club, we want to see pathways come to fruition where we are forever producing first grade footballers out of our junior program.
“We just have to make sure the next superstar is coming through and he is ready to go. The long-term success of the club will be based around how successful we are with bringing throughout juniors and making sure we keep the right ones.
“That’s what we have to do — the salary cap will make us. We will forever be a development club. That’s our charter — bringing kids through.
“And our culture is: team first. It’s not about individuals. Someone makes a mistake, everyone gets around them, someone does something good, everyone gets around them – team first. If you get the right team culture then winning comes naturally.”
Jarome Luai has come through the Panthers’ system. Picture: Phil Hillyard
Very few in rugby league could have tipped Penrith to claim the minor premiership by five competition points.
The Panthers have enjoyed an extraordinary season – but need to win two more matches to make it a history-making year.
“You always have belief and you always dream of having a season like this but, after the year we had last season, if we got in the top eight I would have been pretty happy,” O’Neill said.
“I have watched a lot of our kids come through and I know what they’re capable of. The reality is that it’s humbling to see where we are now but the job’s not done. We have to get on and win a comp for our fans and the people of Penrith, that’s what it’s about.
“It’s a great feeling. We are over-the-moon with, not just Ivan, but the whole coaching staff. We are proud of the boys, the whole organisation, really. We are just trying to get to the weekend now. It’s a long time between now and Saturday.”