How Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary got his players on the bus

December 16 2017

How Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary got his players on the bus
Adrian Proszenko - SMH

When Ivan Cleary uttered the words “On the bus”, he didn’t expect them to resonate.

It was April, Wests Tigers were in disarray and everyone had come to hear what the new man in charge was going to do about it.

Cleary, no stranger to rebuilds, summed it up perfectly. It was time for everyone to come together. And then he uttered a phrase that will, like Phil Gould’s fabled “five-year plan”, remain forever in the league lexicon: “On the bus”.

“It was a bit of a throwaway line,” Cleary says.

"But I used the line because, rightly or wrongly, it wasn’t clear whether some players wanted to be there or they didn’t. All I know is that if you’re going to be successful, you want to be there and be part of it. Be connected.

"I don’t know why everyone jumped on board, why they got on top of it. They just did. “It’s OK. I’m happy with that.”

It’s one thing to trot out a slogan – the media loved it and the Tigers’ marketing department was soon producing caps and T-shirts bearing the words – but living those words is another matter.

Cleary’s predecessor Jason Taylor was punted three weeks into the new season. The so-called “big four” would soon have only one remaining member, Luke Brooks. From the outside, it appeared the Tigers were throwing themselves under, rather than climbing aboard, the bus.

However, Cleary has navigated his way through a tricky initiation, rebuilding the club in much the same manner as he had done at the Warriors and Panthers.

“I’ve done that before, so I’m more accustomed to it – I know the road ahead,” Cleary says.

"Even last season, when I first started, it was pretty cloudy, you’d have to say in many respects. There was lots going on, a lot of contracts in the air, a lot of uncertainty.

"Any time a coach is sacked mid-season, especially early in the year, there are some rough waters. But having done it before, I know the checkpoints. Based on experience, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m really confident. The roster we’ve got, the changes we’ve made and how the team finished up the year, it was a good lead-in to what we’re going into now.”

The Tigers now have a very different look about them. Some of the faces are new, others familiar.

Benji Marshall is back. So too legendary trainer Ronnie Palmer, a Balmain boy, while premiership-winning fullback Brett Hodgson joins Cleary’s staff.

Josh Reynolds, Russell Packer, Ben Matulino, Chris McQueen, Mahe Fonua, Taane Milne, Robbie Rochow and Corey Thompson are along for the ride.

It hasn’t taken long for Cleary to assemble the squad that represents a new beginning.

“It’s always going to be difficult when you have a merged club, particularly two foundation clubs merging,” Cleary says.

"There’s so much history, past rivalry and loyalty that there is going to be some friction and cultural clashes.

"Over an 18-year period I know the club has never had a sustained period of success, for whatever reason.

"So we’re looking to respect everything that’s gone before us, but have the opportunity to grow a new culture that’s very much Wests Tigers in its own right.

“The guys in this group have a unique opportunity to be trailblazers in that.”

The change became apparent when the players began pre-season training. Veteran Tiger Chris Lawrence was too young to have experienced the club’s only premiership, but old enough to have lived through the subsequent dramas, including the Robbie Farah fiasco, Taylor’s sacking and the heart-wrenching departures of Mitchell Moses, Aaron Woods and James Tedesco.

“It’s different because there’s not as much negativity around this year,” Lawrence said.

"It was a crazy six to eight weeks at the start of the season, even the pre-season. It was almost laughable by the end of it, each week it was something else.

“Hopefully it’s all positive. Now when we do the media sessions we can talk about performances on the field and not the stuff off the field.”

The new faces won’t have long to gel. The Tigers have the toughest start to the year of any club, opening their campaign against the Roosters, Storm (twice), Brisbane and Parramatta in the opening five rounds.

For halfback Brooks, it’s time to turn potential into performance.

“It’s fair to say it’s a big period in Luke’s career,” Cleary says.

"He’s up around 70 or 80 games, he was probably elevated to a position maybe too early in his career. He wouldn’t be the first, but he struggled with that a little bit with the ability he’s got.

"At the end of last year, when I started working with him, he had much more control of the team rather than just part control. They are two different things.

“It’s an important phase for his career and guys like Josh Reynolds and Benji are a great resource for him to learn and take some pressure off him.”

There will be a different type of pressure on the newbies. With so much new talent – and enough room in the salary cap to buy two players before next season’s kick-off – there will be plenty of competition for spots.

“I didn’t want to finish my NRL career at 22,” said Tongan international Fonua, who returns to Australia following a stint in the Super League.

"I felt I still had a lot left in me and took the opportunity to come back, so I took it with two hands.

“It’s going to be a good headache for Ivan, him picking the team.”

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