Ivan Cleary has defended the decision to alter his leadership model. (Pic: AAP/Mick Tsikas)
Ivan Cleary has defended the decision to alter his leadership model. (Pic: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Cleary opens up on Tigers exit

IVAN Cleary loves everything about rugby league.

But he doesn't like the attention.

Unfortunately for the Panthers coach, he is in the spotlight for one of the season's most anticipated grudge matches on Friday night.

Since walking out on a remaining two years with the Wests Tigers to reunite with the Panthers - and his son Nathan - the NRL world has been waiting.

For there's nothing like a sideshow of betrayal and bad blood to spice up a rugby league game.

On his part, Cleary is sticking to his guns. He would have handled things better, yes, but the end result would have been the same.

He did what he did. And he has worn the consequences.

"I'd like to change the way it happened but under the circumstances I was open and honest about it and I did the best I could," Cleary said on Thursday ahead of Friday night's blockbuster at Panthers Stadium.

Asked what would he change, Cleary said: "It's been six months and we're still talking about it. The fact that it was dragged through the press for so long, that'd be the first thing I'd change. But sometimes you've got to go with the circumstances as they were and it was just one of those situations."

Ivan Cleary with son Nathan.
Ivan Cleary with son Nathan.

Earlier this week Wests Tigers skipper Moses Mbye said players were shocked to hear of Cleary's departure after he assured them he was staying - going so far as to say some players were hurt. They had signed at the club to be coached by him. He bailed on them.

But Cleary is of the impression he would be welcomed into the Tigers sheds after the game on Friday, which remains to be seen.

From his perspective, there have been no bridges burned.

"I think I've got a good relationship with those boys," Cleary said.

"That's just normal. Rugby league people and the game moves on really quickly. All of my interactions with them since has been positive.

"I was open and honest to everyone who needed to know. The circumstances at the time didn't allow me to speak publicly about it and that was for the protection of everyone involved.

Ivan Cleary has downplayed his exit from Wests Tigers.
Ivan Cleary has downplayed his exit from Wests Tigers.

"I don't owe anyone an apology I don't think, but if [Tigers fans] are unhappy I respect that as well."

Cleary has been cagey about the topic in the past. Just last week, albeit after a thumping at the hands of Melbourne, he refused to buy into the build up around this match.

However, on Thursday he seemed somewhat relaxed - about as much as you could expect.

Part of the reason could be his brother Ash watching on, survived by the kidney Cleary donated to save him.

It gave the narrative some much-needed perspective.

The Panthers this week have been promoting organ donation and encouraging people to register for the lifesaving service.

It's a subject close to Cleary's heart.

"My brother and I don't really want to get around talking about it but the fact is we're trying to bring awareness to it," he said.

"That's one thing about having a high profile job is we can drive a good message."

The subject softens the usually stoic coach.

Cleary said he didn't hesitate in donating his kidney to his brother Ash back in 2017, and it uplifted him to be able to help.

"It was a really cool thing for me to be able to do and it's good for me to see him standing over there with some colour back in his face," he said.

"He was really sick at the time and all you want is for someone you love to feel better. As we grew closer to the actual day, they were worried he was going to be too sick and they were going to pull the pin on the [operation]. The day when you go in, it's actually pretty emotional. It's a good experience but it's a scary one at the same time."

He doesn't like the attention - but he'll take it for a good cause.

Football problems don't compare to real life.

"You take your job and livelihood seriously, but it pales in significance," he said.

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