Penrith’s plan for tomorrow that never comes

Jack Gibson left us with many wonderful memories. But nothing the original supercoach ever said was more real than his advice about what it takes to have success in a football club: “Winning starts in the front office”.

Before the Panthers’ next board meeting, Penrith chairman Dave O’Neill and chief executive Brian Fletcher could do worse than Google a couple of big Jack’s one-liners.

Another that sticks in my memory was how Jack would say the only value of a three-year plan was it allowed two years for failure.

Penrith CEO Brian Fletcher wouldn’t be sold on Wayne Bennett.

Penrith is a club that has been planning for tomorrow for seven years now, and still tomorrow never comes.

What’s worse, it seems O’Neill and Fletcher still can’t get their heads around the fact at some point they have to take ownership of what is happening today.

O’Neill really goosed himself this week with his gobsmacking admission it took “two seconds” to dismiss Phil Gould’s attempt to lure Wayne Bennett as a potential coach.

“I took it to the board when we were discussing Ivan Cleary and we talked about a back-up plan,” O’Neill told colleague Dean Ritchie.

“I told them Gus had a throwaway line about getting Bennett and the board took about two seconds to say, ‘No way in the world, not interested’.”

South Sydney are now getting the benefit of Bennett‘s experience.

I can only imagine how exasperating it must have been for Panthers fans.

Even if it was the truth, surely you’d keep it to yourself after the start to the season Bennett has had at South Sydney.

Not to be outdone, Fletcher was equally emphatic Bennett was never a serious consideration.

“No, not at all,” Fletcher said. “The board thought for the long-term future of the Panthers that Ivan was the man. We didn’t want a short-term fix, we wanted a long-term fix.”

For mine, this goes to the core of everything that is wrong at Penrith.

Phil Gould infamous plan was never realised.

A five-year plan turned into a seven-year plan under Gould. He brought in Cleary and then sacked him for Anthony Griffin, only so the club could later sack Griffin to bring back Cleary on a five-year contract and punt Gould.

Yet now the Panthers tell us they are back at square one and don’t blame Cleary for this disastrous start because he inherited this roster from Gould and Griffin.

“That’s the roster Ivan has,” O’Neill said. “He never bought one player to the club.”

Yet this is the same roster Griffin had when the Panthers were equal-fourth before he was sacked?

Let’s not kid ourselves, Cleary left the Tigers because he obviously felt he had a better chance of winning a premiership with these players and Penrith’s facilities.

Not in 2023. But in 2019.

At the start of the season almost every expert had the Panthers as top-four certainties.

Yet nine rounds in, now Cleary has flagged a review into the football department after last weekend’s embarrassing 30-4 to the Tigers that leaves Penrith with just two wins and seven losses.

But it won’t be much use the board sitting down to review Cleary’s review unless they first review their own practices. Because as Gibson said all those years ago, “winning starts in the front office”.

And if you don’t own up to your mistakes, how can you ever move forward?

Penrith didn’t fancy their chances under Griffin.

There was a story in a recent Men of League magazine that told of a function last year when Craig Bellamy was asked how Melbourne had planned for the transition of playing without the “Big Three” — Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith.

Bellamy basically said it was a simple fact of football life that a club could lose three players in a week for a variety of reasons, so Bellamy’s focus was on the week-to-week issues, not the crystal ball.

Of course, excuses don’t wash with Bellamy. But at Penrith they seem to roll off the tongue.

Earlier this year, Reagan Campbell-Gillard took a swipe at Griffin’s “old school” coaching when he spoke about how the players were enjoying pre-season under Cleary.

Campbell-Gillard says the players are better under Cleary.

“Don’t get me wrong, ‘Hook’ was a good coach, but we were getting tired of the same stuff,” Campbell-Gillard said in March.

“You need a change … with the pre-season, we’re not marathon runners, we’re players who want to train with the ball … Hook was old-school.

“We’d do 2.5km time trials, which doesn’t sound much, but when you’re doing four of them … that type of training felt like Groundhog Day.

“This year, something’s different, it’s exciting, and there’s been no complaining.”

Where can Ivan Cleary look to for guidance now?

It’s probably a good thing Bennett didn’t turn up because one of the first changes Bennett implemented at Souths was canning Anthony Seibold’s proposed pre-season trip to the Australian Institute of Sport so he could take the players bush for a three-day army camp.

Apparently it was “old school” at its unbearable best.

But what Bennett has learned through 43 years as a coach is that there is no substitute for hard work. And “old school” still works, providing players buy in.

It’s true, the NRL is not a level playing field and there are always going to be winners and losers because some clubs have far more resources and far better facilities. Some have way better rosters. Once the season starts, injuries play a huge part.

But Penrith hasn’t been hit by a massive injury toll and their resources and roster are first class.

Still they continue to underachieve.

Bennett once told a story about leadership in his book Don’t Die With The Music In You.

“A lot of people preach teamwork but practise mistrust and selfishness,” Bennett wrote.

I mention that because Penrith’s former premiership winner Ryan Girdler hit the nail on the head last weekend when he accused the club’s senior administration of being “immoral” and “stupid” for the way it went about poaching Cleary in preference to signing Bennett.

You can only guess what impact that has had on the club overall.

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