Christian Nicolussi | Sydney Morning Hearld | 4 February 2023
Not that long ago, Ivan Cleary had an urge to ask his son Nathan what kept him hungry for success.
At just 25, Nathan has already won two NRL premierships with the Panthers, featured in three Origin series wins for NSW and, most recently, collected a World Cup with the Kangaroos.
Add to that more individual honours than most players earn in a career, and the Panthers star has ticked a lot of boxes.
Latrell Mitchell is the same age, has enjoyed plenty of success and publicly flirted with the idea of retiring when he turns 30 to move back to the family farm in Taree, on the NSW mid-North Coast, especially if he can inspire South Sydney to a title.
Cleary, on the other hand, looks like he could play until he’s 40.
Looking refreshed after an off-season holiday that included stops in Amsterdam, Prague, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Las Vegas and Bali, the NRL star told The Sun-Herald: “That mateship, that feeling of walking off the field knowing you’ve played a hard game and won, I don’t get that feeling from anything else in my life.
“It might be different once I have a family and kids, but that euphoria does not come from any other aspect in my life.
“I remember when I was younger, I was content to play first grade and, if I won a comp, I’d happily retire. Now I’ve been blessed to have this success at a relatively young age, and it only makes me hungrier.
“I know deep down I’m honestly only getting started and there’s still such a long way to go. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve fully reached [the summit]. There’s always something you can be better at.
“I know I’ll never be perfect, but I can strive to be perfect.”
Cleary was born a few months before Good Will Hunting was released, the Hollywood blockbuster featuring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon’s character is a mathematical genius, but keeps passing on big job offers so he can work in construction and drink beer with his mates.
There is a fantastic scene where Affleck’s character tells his friend he is wasting his talents, and how “you’ve got something none of us have”.
“Why is it always about how I owe it to myself to do this and that … what if I don’t want to?” Damon’s character says.
Affleck’s character responds: “You don’t owe it to yourself, you owe it to me. You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket, but you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in.”
Cleary, more a documentary guy than a movie buff, knows he would be short-changing his family and friends if he did not see just how far his league talents can take him.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot to prove, not to other people but myself and the people around me and the people who believe in me,” Cleary said. “If I stopped now, I’d be letting them down.
“If I wasn’t playing footy, I actually don’t know what I’d be doing.”
Cleary recalled watching a Tom Brady documentary last year, and how the recently retired NFL megastar made a point of singling out his teammates.
“He [Brady] was always saying how he wanted to elevate his teammates, and how his teammates elevated him,” Cleary said.
“I can definitely relate to that. If I wasn’t in this team with the teammates I’ve got, I wouldn’t be the player I am. I also know I get the chance to help the players around me and make them better.”
Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai has known Cleary more than a decade. He joked that Cleary loved the game so much, he could play in the NRL until he was 50.
“I hate to lose, but he loves to win,” Luai said. “He wants to reach his potential, he knows he’s the man for our team and never wants to let anyone down.”
Of all the success they had with Penrith last year, the standout memory about Cleary for Luai was playing for Samoa against Australia in the World Cup final, then swapping jerseys afterwards.
Cleary’s jersey hangs on a wall at home, never to be washed.
“I try to wear it to bed each night hoping [some of the magic] rubs off on me,” Luai said with a laugh. “I get to play with one of the best players in the world every week, and when I played against him that night, I was reminded of that.”
If there is one knock on Cleary, it is that he does not know when to pull back. Few fans would have known he was sick leading up to the World Cup quarter-final against Lebanon. Despite Kangaroos staff wanting him to take it easy, he pushed himself the only way he knows how.
Cleary knows the loss of Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau at the Panthers this season cannot be underestimated. One of his jobs will be to inspire their replacements, such as Mitch Kenny and Luke Garner, to be better players as Penrith look to become the first team since Parramatta in the early 1980s to win three straight titles.
This time last year, the question was whether Cleary’s dodgy shoulder would prevent him from playing in round one. This year, fans are more concerned about whether Penrith can win three premierships in a row.
“Why not,” Cleary says. “We’re working as hard as we can to put ourselves in the position to do well. The majority of the group has experienced losing a grand final [in 2020 to the Storm], and also winning two. The latter is much more enjoyable.”
Cleary posted footage of him working with All Blacks legend Dan Carter this week. He says he was “starstruck”. How many fans and young athletes will say the same about Cleary in the years to come?
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