Ivan Cleary believes Penrith are closing the gap on the NRL’s glamour clubs both on and off the field but admits they remain a long way from matching the financial muscle of Saturday’s opponents Canterbury.
Cleary’s Panthers brushed aside Newcastle in round one and lost by a single point to Melbourne at AAMI Park last week and subsequently labelled the competition’s form team by Des Hasler.
Hasler’s claim was laughed off by Cleary on Friday but he was deadly serious about his admiration for the manner in which his rival has been able to splash his club’s cash.
In a busy week at Belmore ahead of their away clash with Penrith, star forward James Graham and representative centre Josh Morris were both re-signed on lucrative deals.
This was followed by confirmation of a $1.1 million three-year contract for exciting young Cronulla hooker Michael Lichaa from 2015 when he’ll be joined by Sharks teammate Andrew Fifita – on a massive $850,000 a season.
“The Bulldogs are the club that we are trying to get to,” Cleary said.
“They have been successful for so long through different eras.
“They’ve always been well coached, from Warren Ryan, when they were known for their defence, through to Chris Anderson where they were the great entertainers and now Des.
“They are financially very strong and backed by a very wealthy leagues club and they do things very well.”
Cleary is now in his third season at the Panthers and the club is on an upward trajectory with big earners like Luke Lewis, Lachlan Coote and Michael Jennings ushered out of the door and the money used to recruit shrewdly.
Elijah Taylor and Peter Wallace have been strong performers this season with Dean Whare, James Segeyaro and Lewis Brown, who joined in 2013, already key players at the club.
The club’s once-fertile nursery is also bearing fruit once again with the U20s side winning last year’s competition and the lower grade teams all excelling.
Cleary said the club is in far better shape then when arrived from the Warriors, and will only get better.
“We’re improving on and off the field for sure, we were in a hell of a mess a couple of years ago,” he said.
“We’re definitely better now as a football team and a club. Our junior teams results have been very pleasing and that is all part of the project. But there is still a long way to go.”
A 40-metre penalty attempt from Wallace that fell just short on the siren prevented the Panthers from taking the Storm to golden point last Saturday as they slipped to a 18-17 loss.
Cleary said the bitter disappointment in the dressing room at the loss, following a very encouraging performance, was another sign the team was on the up.
“We were close and did a lot of things well, but did a lot things not so well .. and we’re weren’t happy about it,” Cleary said.
“But the reality is we didn’t win the game so it counts for nothing. We need to get back on track on Saturday.”