Gus’s $10m gamble a disaster in waiting
PHIL Gould is one of the smartest minds in rugby league but he's also a gambling man - as the drama surrounding the Panthers in recent days proves.
The Penrith football boss, with the support of the board, sacked coach Anthony Griffin a month out from the finals despite the team sitting fifth on the ladder. Since then we've learned the Panthers are courting Wests Tigers mentor Ivan Cleary to take the reins in 2019.
Gould axed Cleary as Panthers coach in 2015 but much of the desire to bring him back to Sydney's west centres around keeping Cleary's son, gun halfback Nathan, at the foot of the mountains.
The father-son duo have spoken openly about wanting to one day team up at an NRL club. Nathan is contracted with Penrith until the end of 2019 and there's been speculation the Tigers would be keen to use Ivan, who is contracted to until the end of 2020, as a carrot to bring the young playmaker to the joint-venture club.
However, by making moves to rip Ivan away from the Tigers on a reported four or five year deal, Penrith is hoping to keep the NSW No. 7 at the club long-term.
But for all the sentimentality around a possible Cleary family reunion at Penrith, the risks are huge. There's every chance playing under his dad may bring out the best in Nathan and in turn, the Panthers. But there's just as big a chance for life to turn very sour.
The Panthers have a talented roster and know they are in a premiership window. They are desperate to win a grand final in the next few seasons before that window closes - but is Ivan the man to make that happen?
He's incredibly well respected but the reality is, in more than a decade of coaching, Ivan's winning record is less than 50 per cent with the Warriors, Panthers and Tigers combined - hardly inspiring numbers for a club hellbent on chasing silverware.
If Ivan can't get that winning percentage up, how long does Gould wait before jettisoning him for a second time? The 60-year-old has shown a willingness to be ruthless to get results - would the same apply to Ivan if it meant hurting Nathan?
Also, Nathan still lives at home with his parents. You have to question what the strain of living and working with your dad - when he's also your boss - would do to their relationship.
Nathan has already shown he has the makings to be one of the game's best players and most dominant half for the next decade, but it's normal for young players to go through troughs. It seems far-fetched now, but what if he's underperforming - does Ivan drop him? How would that look, the coach dropping the very player he was brought to the club to keep?
Or if Ivan doesn't drop Nathan should he go through a form slump, how would other players react? The coach keeping his son in the side while teammates who aren't delivering the goods get dumped to reserve grade is a worrying proposition that could very much become reality, however unlikely it seems.
And what if the two disagree on team tactics? What if Ivan wants the team to adopt a gameplan Nathan isn't happy with, or vice versa? Or what if Ivan instructs his son to play a role he's uncomfortable with?
Ivan isn't prone to outbursts, but if Nathan wasn't pulling his weight during a game does the coach give him a spray at halftime?
Imagine having a disagreement on the training paddock or in the dressing sheds then jumping in the car and heading home and sitting down at the dinner table together. It doesn't get much more awkward than that.
Then there's the long-term damage Penrith risks. Jarome Luai starred as Cleary's replacement when he was on Origin duty but up-and-coming halves may be tempted to pursue an NRL career elsewhere if they can't see a path to first grade. That might be the case anyway given Nathan already has a mortgage on the No. 7 jersey, but Ivan being at the helm would only make it more unlikely for another playmaker to usurp him.
Penrith has arguably the best junior nursery in rugby league, so producing new talent may not be an issue, but it's still a point worth considering.
The Panthers will need to pay Griffin out and, should they snare Ivan, offer the Tigers a sizeable compensation package. The Australian's rugby league writer Brent Read said Penrith is looking at a five-year deal for Ivan and a four-year contract extension for Nathan which would, all things combined, cost an estimated $10 million.
"This is remarkable, right, because they've paid Anthony Griffin about a million dollars to leave, and they're going to have to pay compensation to the Wests Tigers if they get Ivan - two years (left) on his deal, I would suggest they'd have to pay $1 million compensation," Read said on the Triple M Rush Hour with Mark Geyer.
"The talk is a five-year deal, worth $800,000 a season I would think. That's $4 million, that's $6 million (including Griffin's payout and the Tigers' compensation).
"Then you'd think they're going to re-sign his son, that's one of the reasons this is happening. He's a million dollar a year player. You bring him in line with Ivan, that's a four-year extension, that's $4 million.
"This is a $10 million investment. It's a massive, massive investment by this football club."
Read summed up perfectly what was on the line with that $10 million gamble.
"It would want to pay off, or heads should roll," he said. "It's a premiership or bust."
The pressure on Nathan should Ivan join Penrith would be enormous. It's the magical formula fans, sponsors and club powerbrokers would expect to deliver a premiership, and at just 21 next season, the weight of expectation on his young shoulders to guide the team to a grand final would be all consuming.
Although Nathan has shown a tremendous temperament to deal with all the challenges he's encountered so far, the heat on him would be even more intense with dad calling the shots.
There are many reasons why the Panthers' daring plan to bring both Clearys together may fail, and make no mistake, anything other than a premiership would be a failure. Everything has to go perfectly for the delicate balance of father and son working together not to blow up in Penrith's face.
But Gould's been around long enough to know what he's doing and as we said before, he's as smart an operator as you get in rugby league. So while the odds are against him, perhaps he knows better than everyone else why this risky gamble is going to pay off.