FORGET THE greenstone hanging round his neck, just how does a skinny white Australian bloke come here and motivate all those, you know, unreliable, Polynesian players? Especially when the coach of the Warriors rugby league team, Ivan Cleary, appears as emotive as a Grecian statue, as excitable as a corpse?
He has done it, it seems, by being himself. Reserved, quiet, calm, Cleary is the antithesis of the traditional sports coach. And for a club whose history has been a litany of turmoil and trouble, that has been exactly what the Warriors have needed.
Whatever the result was in the playoff match against the Sydney Roosters on Friday night, in just his third year as a coach, Cleary has brought this side to the cusp of being the best in the club's 13-year history.
Wairangi Koopu, a long-serving player who was cut by Cleary this year, says: "I've only once ever seen him blow up, and even then he knew it wasn't his style to rant and rave.
"It's an approach that works quite well, especially with the Polynesian boys, who don't react too well to abusive-type coaching: so it is definitely one of his positives."
If the Warriors lose, says Koopu, Cleary lets you know. "But he doesn't yell in your face. You could tell when he was pissed off though."
It's just that you can't always tell when he's happy.
When wing Manu Vatuvei broke away in the final minute of last Sunday's playoff game against Melbourne, hurled the ball inside and Michael Witt scored, up in the coach's box, there came a smile. A fist punched the air. Three times. For seasoned Cleary watchers, it was a momentous moment.
While television stations routinely train a camera on coaches to catch a reaction, Cleary's gamut of expressions, from bored, to calm, to relaxed, is barely worth the cameraman's shift payment.
League writers are well aware Cleary doesn't have much time for journalists. Earlier this season, Cleary told Steve Mascord, one of Australia's leading league writers, not to ring him. Mascord habitually phones each of the 16 NRL coaches on alternate days but says he no longer calls Cleary.
Cleary tends to offer brief, aloof press conferences, short on emotion and soundbite quotes. Asked to talk for this story, he declined, saying through an intermediary that he didn't like talking about himself.
So where does the cool-store coach come from?
RAISED IN Dee Why, on Sydney's northern beaches, Cleary surfed and played schoolboy soccer. But once he realised, later in high school, that he had ability as a rugby league player, he pursued the prospect relentlessly.
He was completing a property valuing degree and had his own lawn-mowing round when his local club, Manly, offered him a professional contract. "I worked really hard at that point," he said later. "My mates were all going out, I wasn't."
Back in 1992, Manly was a team of superstars: the first to hook a proper multinational sponsorship deal, with Pepsi, one of the first to chase high-profile rugby signings. One of those, Matthew Ridge, ensured Cleary would never play much first-grade there; but his first coach, Graham Lowe, can still remember the kid in the corner of the dressing shed who didn't say much.
At 20, says Lowe, Cleary was the same as he is today. "I remember him as a real quiet bloke, a committed person; he went from us to North Sydney and that was the making of him," he says. "Ivan hasn't surprised me at all - the sort of person he is now is how I thought he was in the limited time I had him at the club then.
A slight but able footballer, Cleary established himself at fullback with Manly's nearest, but less glamorous, neighbours North Sydney, then went on to the Roosters, based in eastern Sydney. He broke plenty of goalkicking records and rarely missed a first grade game, but never played at representative level, something he later attributed to "aiming too low".
But he was well-regarded: his coach at the Roosters, Phil Gould, offers one of league's biggest compliments - that he would play injured and never show the pain.
Gould also declares: "He's the sort of bloke you would let marry your daughter, and there's not too many footballers you could say that about."
When he went to play for the Warriors in 2000, Cleary was 28, married to Rebecca with two children and a third on the way. He came, he later told Metro magazine, for a combination of "bloody good money" and "a bit of adventure, too".
Two years later, Cleary and the Warriors stormed to the grand final - their best season - and that game at the Olympic stadium in Sydney proved his last as a player. He had plans to see out his time with the English club Huddersfield, and perhaps finally go into the real estate business, but instead wound up as reserve grade coach at the Roosters.
He said that was almost by accident, and Gould too had assumed he simply wouldn't be interested in coaching, but former teammates say they always expected it of such an analytical player. Once he arrived at the Roosters it was apparent he was a natural.
Gould mentions Cleary's communication skills and his perseverance. "When he first started, he had a pretty poor side, they got shellacked often, but his demeanour never changed. He never got angry... he turned up every week and did his work and the following year took them to a premiership. But even when he was winning, his demeanour never changed, he was level-headed all the way through.
"You could see that when they beat Melbourne [last Sunday] most coaches would be bubbling to give themselves and their players a rap [Cleary didn't]."
After two seasons at the Roosters, Cleary returned to Auckland as assistant first grade coach to Tony Kemp. They were turbulent times, and Kemp's reign was brief. Former All Blacks coach John Hart was instructed by the club's millionaire owners, Mark Hotchin and Eric Watson, to reconstruct the club after the colourful tenure of chief executive Mick Watson ended.
Cleary had a contract clause promising him next turn as first grade coach, and Hart says it soon became apparent he was the right choice.
Cleary tells his mates he is an honorary Kiwi now. The club has him signed until 2010, with an option for 2011 - a remarkably long-term deal for a coach.
Hart believes he will be around much longer. "I actually think he can be the Wayne Bennett for the Warriors," he says, citing the coach who has spent the last 22 seasons with the Brisbane Broncos. "If he wants to, if he has that drive, he could be at the Warriors for a long time."
THE DIVISION in Ivan Cleary's life is distinct. He works long hours, many of them on detailed computer analysis of tactics and opponents, but away from football his life appears to be purely about family.
Gould says Cleary and Rebecca are the sort of couple who seem to have been together forever, and reckons she has given him a stability that has helped him immensely. A family snap - of Rebecca and his four children Nathan, India, Jett and Milaya - sits on his desk at Warriors HQ in Penrose, and people who have worked with Cleary say he is Mr Clean: no skeletons.
That approach appeals to his mainly Polynesian workforce, and it may explain another aspect of his coaching that endears - his willingness to keep working with players other coaches would discard.
"I watch his teams and there are some players at times you think, `gee whiz', and Ivan perseveres, you know, and he gets results in the long-term because he is patient, very patient," says Gould.
You can see that in the way he has stoutly, to the point of exasperation, defended Vatuvei, now one of his best players, but who only a year ago was hounded by media for one awful game against Parramatta. When his team loses, says Hart, Cleary hurts, he feels so strongly, but he doesn't show it. When the Warriors were trundling through an awful seven-match losing run last season, former Warrior teammate Monty Betham turned up to observe training, expecting an awful atmosphere. He says Cleary was completely unchanged.
Hart, the man who happily describes himself as Cleary's mentor, concedes: "He is a private person. I see him as a really good friend, but he doesn't let his guard down."
And the apparent standoffishness is also partly shyness, others say.
Former cricketer Richard Petrie, who has done consultancy work with the Warriors, explains: "He's shy, but he's not shy to be a coach."
Born: March 1, 1971, Sydney
Family: Wife Rebecca, children Nathan, India, Jett and Milaya.
Playing career: Fullback with Manly 1992-93 (15 games), North Sydney 1994-95 (37 games), Roosters 1996-99 (81 games), Warriors 2000-02 (53 games). Set (now-surpassed) record for the most goals kicked in a single season.
Coaching career: Roosters reserve grade 2003-2004, Warriors assistant 2005, Warriors head coach since 2006.
In the past two years, only three NRL clubs have better winning percentages than the Warriors.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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