Penrith Panthers not overachieving, says Cleary
No one expected Penrith to be top of the table 10 weeks out from the NRL finals, but coach Ivan Cleary doesn't believe his team are over-achieving.
Cleary hand-picked the likes of Jamie Soward, Peter Wallace, Elijah Taylor and Brent Kite to come to the club and do a job for him, and he's not surprised in the slightest that they're now delivering.
Critics argue the Panthers have received a blessed ride through the first half of the season, thanks mainly to the fact they don't have a single player involved in State of Origin.
However, Cleary has slammed that theory, arguing the benefits for having Origin representatives in your line-up far outweighs the drawbacks.
Cleary says his side deserve to be contenders, but knows the battle has only just begun.
"If you look at the ladder there's a lot of teams that are very, very close together. The ladder doesn't really matter until the end of the season," he said.
"We don't have people in Origin. I imagine down the back end of the season the teams that have got the Origin players are going to be happy they've got them.
"There's a bit of feeling around that we're kind of over-achieving.
"But we're happy with what we've got.
"I think we've got some players capable of playing at that (Origin) level and have played that level before."
Cleary is well aware his team can't properly be judged until they show they can compete with heavyweights the Sydney Roosters, Manly and Melbourne on their road home.
However, there's no doubting he's very happy with the balance he's found.
The experienced heads of Soward and Wallace are working well behind a forward pack that's dynamic and full of variety.
Despite surging to a joint-lead of the competition with nine wins and four losses, Cleary says he's had no problem keeping his young players grounded.
The tag, 'flying under the radar' has long been attributed to Des Hasler, but the reality is that mantra isn't particularly realistic when you're coaching big-name teams like Manly and Canterbury.
But at the Panthers, Cleary has found he really can keep things low key.
"We've got some pretty handy leaders who have been around the traps and have been through this thing before," he said.
"Guys like Brent Kite, Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace - they've been there and done it. With the rest of the guys, there's not too much fanfare here. We're just going about our business and trying to improve."