Ivan Cleary hated being called "The Axe". Mainly because it didn't match his unassuming personality.
About to embark on his ninth season as head coach, Cleary had long been destined for the clipboard, say his former teammates. His playing style is reflected in his coaching demeanour.
Little fazes him and Cleary rarely lets his guard down. To call him bland would be an insult to the way the 43-year-old carries himself. While he doesn't court headlines and rarely finishes a post-match media conference red-faced, Cleary is methodical and measured in his approach.
One-time teammate Greg Florimo, who spent two seasons playing alongside Cleary at the North Sydney Bears, said few were tougher.
"We defended next to each other," Florimo said. "I was at five-eighth and he was playing centre and he had this ability to read the play.
"He was quite punishing in defence and I used to call him 'The Axe' but he never liked that. He really used to come in and cut guys in half."
Cleary may have been only 15 games into his first-grade career when he switched to the Bears from Manly but he made an immediate impact. Despite being surrounded by experienced players including Florimo, Mark Soden, Billy Moore and Gary Larson, Cleary always wanted to have his say.
"He always had input into team meetings and into our preparations during the week," Florimo said. "He would always have insightful comments. He wouldn't say too much but when he did everyone stood up and listened.
"He had an ability to hit the nail on the head. He was pretty eloquent and he always seemed just to say the right things. He was very even-tempered and I have never seen him lose his temper. He never got too excited when we put on a great play."
The notion of not celebrating the highs too long and ensuring you don't dwell on the lows is a familiar trait among the highest profile NRL coaches. Among those is Newcastle's Wayne Bennett, who opposed Cleary's Panthers last night. According to those that know both well, they share more than just coaching responsibilities.
New Panthers five-eighth Jamie Soward thrived under Bennett's tutelage during his three year stint at St George Illawarra.
Soward said he felt as comfortable with Cleary as he did under Bennett's watch.
"Ivan is very hands on with his players and understands what they need at certain times," Soward said.
"He knows when I haven't been 100 per cent and he knows when I haven't been in a good mood.
"It was very similar with Wayne. He was very hands on."
Like Bennett, Cleary has had to make tough decisions. Bennett told Wally Lewis and Scott Prince that they had limited futures at the Broncos while Cleary has pressed ahead at Penrith after telling Luke Lewis and Michael Jennings to move on.
Cleary jumped into coaching in 2006 as head coach of the Warriors, four years after retiring. Among his closest friends is his former New Zealand teammate Kevin Campion, who won a premiership under Bennett at the Broncos in 2000.
Campion described Cleary as a "complex character" but said Cleary and Bennett both had little time for those who put themselves before the team.
"Ivan was destined for coaching. He has a calmness about him. When he was a player he led by example. People forget how tough he was." SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
- Sunday Star Times
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