There is no time to waste as an NRL coach. Image: Mark Evans/Getty Images
There is no time to waste as an NRL coach. Image: Mark Evans/Getty Images

Kent: Poor form exposes Panthers civil war

It is a considered truth that a coach's ongoing employment in rugby league often depends as much on his ability to head off trouble, whether perceived or real remains irrelevant, as it does for anything as pesky as wins and losses.

No modern board is prepared to take on an angry fan base, no matter how off the mark they might be, for fear these same fans might instead vote them out of a job at the next general election.

So the drums of war thump a formidable beat in rugby league.

Ivan Cleary's slow start at Penrith comes as it emerges that the club's general manager of football and head honcho, Phil Gould, had Wayne Bennett across the line to take over as Penrith head coach before the board overruled him last year.

Bennett had the job on a Wednesday and by Friday was being told the board had gone in another direction. That would be towards Cleary, in a deal where the Panthers got two for the price of three, with halfback and son Nathan re-signing as well.

In a further escalation of tribal warfare Gould has since been distanced from the football club at Penrith.

We broke Penrith's small civil war on Triple M on Sunday in the wake of the Panthers' poor effort against Melbourne a night earlier. The time was right for conversation.

Trouble takes only a short step from the paddock to the boardroom in modern rugby league.

Saturday's disabling loss, the 1-2 record after a season that began with hope and premiership dreams, gave the story relevancy even though most of the details remain in the smoky backrooms.

Still, many within the game knew the backstory.

It’s not like Gould doesn’t have form for dumping coaches. Image: AAP Image/Joel Carrett
It’s not like Gould doesn’t have form for dumping coaches. Image: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Within hours, and quite by coincidence, NRL.com published a similar story detailing Gould's secret deal with Bennett. Cracks were opening, perception and reality, and if the question is not ready to be asked now it will be soon: At what point do Penrith's results transition from poor form to deeper internal issues?

The big winner, clearly, is Bennett. He coaches Souths, perched happily at the top of the table with Melbourne.

Aside from him it appears to be Gould.

So far, anyway.

Gould has been distanced from the football team since Cleary's appointment as head coach. Gould, remember, sacked Cleary from his previous stint for the curious reason that he was "tired".

The relationship was never repaired. Whether Gould's removal from football team operations was a Cleary request remains unclear.

Gould was a constant voice in the ear of previous coach Anthony Griffin and then Cameron Ciraldo, the interim coach. Indeed, a big reason behind Griffin's demise were the disagreements with Gould over the team's playing style, such as Griffin's reluctance to look for trick plays, a Gould special.

Looks like Wayne Bennett got the best of this deal. Image: Phil Hillyard
Looks like Wayne Bennett got the best of this deal. Image: Phil Hillyard

Now, under Cleary, Gould has far less say. His duties have been restricted to junior pathways and recruitment and other, more minor, club matters.

Meaning right now Gould is sitting on a great big I Told You So if Penrith's fortunes do not turn any time soon.

Similarly, Canterbury sought to lasso the wind last Friday with a pre-emptive announcement that Dean Pay's contract was being extended another season.

Have the Bulldogs shown their faith in Pay? Or handed him the poisoned chalice?

Pay's extension takes him only to the end of 2020 when, really, everybody knows the Bulldogs don't get control of their salary cap back until 2021.

Pay gets to coach another season on limited provisions. Is Pay being kept long enough to do somebody else's dirty work?

Since assuming control at the Bulldogs last year the new board has made a lot of noise about the poor job of the previous administration but, more than a year in, have yet to strike a blow of any significance to show how the club is rebuilding.

Is Dean Pay a coach or a caretaker? Image: Matt King/Getty Images
Is Dean Pay a coach or a caretaker? Image: Matt King/Getty Images

Pay showed the short term future Sunday when he handed club debuts to Nick Meany, Jayden Okunbor, Ofahiki Ogden and Chris Smith.

Canterbury's only way out is the hard way out. Short term, anyway.

Both coaches will content themselves, and distract everybody else from the talk, with the insistence this lack of early season form means nothing.

Last year's premiers, the Sydney Roosters, were seventh after four rounds. The year before Melbourne was second but, the year before Cronulla was ninth and before that the Cowboys were 15th. The Rabbitohs were 13th after four rounds the year they won the title.

The Panthers are currently 14th.

Like it or not, though, perception is reality.

And one reality that can't be denied is that, come Friday, Cleary takes on the Tigers team he left last year, which set all this in motion.

News Corp Australia