Cleary Q&A: Why the halfback chose Penrith over Tigers

Nathan Cleary has signed a five-year contract extension that will keep him at the Penrith Panthers until 2024.

In an exclusive interview with NRL.com, the Panthers halfback sat down with chief reporter Michael Chammas to discuss why he committed his future to Penrith despite constant speculation linking him to the Wests Tigers.

MC: Nathan, it's taken a while, but you've committed as a Panther. Can you talk us through how hard or how easy it has been to come to this decision?

NC: It was a pretty easy decision. I made it clear from the start of the year that I didn't want to talk about my contract throughout the year because I wanted to focus on footy and do the best for the team. Once the season was done, I had made up my mind that I wanted to stay. I think the last six weeks or so of the season really drove that home for me. Just the vibe around the place, the people I play with and the coaching staff ... I mean Ciro (Cameron Ciraldo) and Wal (Peter Wallace) have been amazing. It ended up being a pretty easy decision.

MC: I know that you got along well with Hook (Anthony Griffin) but it seems like things have changed around here since he left. Is it fair to say those changes have helped convince you this is where your future should be?

NC: Yeah they have and it made my decision easier as I had more clarity. I never really had a problem with Hook and I'll be forever grateful that he gave me the chance to play first grade. It was a massive gamble at the time. I was 18 and he had to make some tough decisions to give me my debut. I will always cherish that and be really grateful for that. But things weren't going to plan this year and there was often a lot of confusion. I'm not trying to say anything bad about Hook here, but once it all got cleared up everyone was on the same page and everyone was a lot happier. Those last six weeks, even though we weren't playing great footy, training was going really well. Everyone was in the same direction and wanted to end up at the same destination.

MC: Is that when you knew this is where you wanted to be?

NC: Yeah it was. I was probably getting a little bit worried at the stages when there was confusion and people were starting to butt heads. But the back end of the year I have nothing but praise for the way things were. I really loved it and enjoyed it. The coaching staff was on the same page. They were making training fun. And the boys, we were always tight even when everything was going on, but we were all happy being around each other.

MC: So people assumed that Anthony Griffin going means your old man is coming and that's why you're committing your future here. But from what you're saying it's got nothing to do with whether your dad's here or not, it's about the change in environment. Is that right?

NC: Yeah exactly. It's got nothing to do with my old man. I was happy to make the decision by myself. What happens in the future with dad is out of my control. I don't think I ever thought I was going to leave even with what was going on. I always thought I would stay and it would all work itself out eventually and yeah it did. This is a real happy place to be in at the moment.

MC: Is there a part of you that feels you owe this club? As you said you made your debut here as a teenager, you've gone on to win an Origin series and have also played in three straight finals series. Was there a little bit of you thinking, this is who I am, this is where I should be?

NC: I actually said that to dad half way through the year. I said 'I really don't want to leave without delivering something I could be proud of to Penrith'. I think I do owe a fair bit to the club. They've helped me out so much. They gave me a debut at 18 and not too many clubs would have done that. For the time I've been in first grade, they've always been looking out for me and helping me. Even when I wasn't playing my best at different stages, they always backed me and they always had faith in me. I've got to repay the favour.

MC: So how did your dad take the news that you wouldn't be a Tiger? Is he just happy that you're happy?

NC: Yeah exactly. Dad's always been like that. Both dad and mum. They've always wanted what's best for me and I'm really lucky to have them. They've given me a lot of guidance over what I should do and what I shouldn't do not just with this contract but life in general. I told them that I wanted to stay and they were over the moon. They kind of knew it was the best thing for me. They said as long as I'm happy then they are happy. I'm really lucky to be in that position.

Ivan Cleary with Nathan Cleary after Origin II.
Ivan Cleary with Nathan Cleary after Origin II. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

MC: Have you given much thought to what it will be like for you with your teammates when or if he ever coaches you? I imagine you all go to coffee or lunch and sometimes you talk about training and bag the coach or the plans. I'm tipping the boys aren't going to be able to include you in those discussions any more. Have you given that serious thought because maybe you will be ostracised and it will change the relationship you have with some of these blokes.

NC: That does happen. We all go out and talk about training and what we thought. But I'm hoping it wouldn't change things for me. If it happens, whenever it happens, I will just treat him as a coach hopefully. Even though he is my dad, it's just how it will work out. Hopefully the players can see past that. I know that if eventually it does happen it's not going to be all smooth sailing. Footy never is. I don't have these massive expectations that it will be a perfect world being coached by my dad or that nothing bad will ever happen, but it's just a challenge to overcome if it does arise.

MC: So what happens now? Is he here at this club next year?

NC: Not that I know of. Obviously my intentions have been that I wanted him to coach me but it's never been a package deal or anything. I said this is my decision and what happens from here is his decision. It would obviously be nice. I would love that. But in the meantime I also loved being coached by Ciro.

MC: Were you ever worried about the family name? The Cleary name is held in such high regard, I imagine you were probably conscious of the fact you didn't want to be the one that tarnished that through whatever actions or decisions you made.

NC: I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't worrying me. Obviously I didn't want people tarnishing our name and I think that probably affected me and mum more than anything. Dad's pretty cruisey. When he hears this stuff he doesn't really take it on board too much. Being such a close family, we pride ourselves on what others think of us. That was probably one of the hardest things hearing the stuff people were saying.

NSW halfback Nathan Cleary.
NSW halfback Nathan Cleary. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

MC: How are you with everything Nath? Not just this whole contract situation with you and your father, but we sometimes forget that you're still this 20-year-old kid trying to deal with the fact that you're probably the most talked about player in the game. Are you alright?

NC: It's pretty crazy. I've had to take a back seat from everything and focus on the people around me. I think I fell into the trap of trying to make everyone happy at stages. Especially this year. I wanted everyone to like me. I was worried so much about what other people thought of me. I came to the realisation that it's just the nature of footy. You can't get everyone to like you. Not everyone is going to be happy with what you do. I really focused on the people close to me – the club, my friends and my family. They are the people that mean the most to me. Their opinion of me is what I take on board and go from there.

MC: Are you proud of the way you handled yourself?

NC: There was never going to be an easy way to handle this. There was no easy way out. Especially with me saying that I didn't want to make a decision until the end of the year. There was always going to be speculation. I just couldn't stop that. I hope people still hold me in high regard. But I'm happy with the decision I've made.

MC: You said that you wanted to put the contract talk aside and wait until the end of the year, but everyone else didn't allow you to stop thinking about it. Did that get pretty frustrating, having to say the same thing over and over again?

NC: Yeah it got very frustrating. It happened multiple times throughout the year and plenty of rumours coming up. I was even reading people saying I was a done deal at the Tigers and I'm thinking 'geez that's news to me'. Going to the Tigers was always in the back of my mind because dad was there, but I think I always thought it would be hard to leave Penrith and deep down I didn't really want to do it. The constant speculation did get a bit annoying but I had that same line rehearsed every time but it was the truth.

MC: Why didn't you go to market? Why no interest in seeing what was out there?

NC: I don't know, it just never really appealed to me. I think the only reason I would go to the open market is for more money, but that was never an intention of mine. The money was never a main priority. Obviously it's nice to have and it's a bit of a bonus but my main priority was my happiness and the players I was playing alongside. I am happy at Penrith and didn't feel the need to look anywhere else. Gus knew where I stood on the whole money thing. I was never not going to stay here because the money wasn't good enough. I always said I would like to team up with Dad, and I probably only broke it down to either the Tigers or Penrith. But I always knew it would be hard to leave Penrith.

MC: Were you ever leaning towards the Tigers because at one point there were reports a couple of months ago that you were signed, sealed and delivered there.

NC: Nah, not really. I had spoken to dad, and that's when the rumours came out. I don't know how but they did. But dad knew. He was kind of worried that I wasn't going to go there because I was so lucky here in the position I am in and the people surrounding me. He knew I would have found it hard to leave and favoured staying at Penrith.

MC: How big of a factor was a crack at a premiership in the very near future? No disrespect to the Tigers but Penrith seem closer to that window than the Tigers at the moment.

NC: I think the Tigers probably aren't too far either to be honest. But yeah it is a massive factor the whole premiership thing. It's more so that I want to bring one to Penrith. Growing up here and supporting Penrith as a fan, you see how much it means to everyone and how happy everyone in the community is when we're winning. Just the driving factor of the chance to be part of the next team to bring a premiership to Penrith, that'll be something pretty special. I'm lucky to have some freakish players around me. I've grown up with half the people in the team. Even the people I didn't grow up with I feel like I've played with them forever. It would be a massive achievement and that's my next goal, bringing a premiership to Penrith.

MC: What do you say to the Tigers fans? Sorry?

NC: I don't know. Sorry. Good luck. I don't know. It was all kind of speculation that got taken out of proportion. I'm sorry it's turned out this way.

MC: This is your chance to set the record straight? Was there ever any interest from the Roosters? The Broncos? There were all sorts of stories out there.

NC: I guess I'll never know if there was any interest from those clubs because I never went to market. As for the rumours of me signing there, I'm not too sure where they came from as it was never even discussed. Obviously I knew the Tigers would've been interested because of dad but I always felt my heart was with Penrith.

MC: Like it or not, the reality is that a lot of pressure comes with these long term deals. You're the face of this club now. You said you couldn't leave here without repaying the faith. Are you ready for what that brings?

NC: I have a very long way to go and I feel I have a lot of improvement in me. That makes me excited in the fact that I think I can get a lot better. I definitely want to become a leader of this club. I think the fact I played Origin this year has brought a lot of pressure. People just immediately think of you differently. What once was seen as an average game turns into a terrible game. I'm happy to take that on board. I was reluctant at first. Dad was too. We spoke earlier in the year about being the marquee player of a club, I suppose. We were both reluctant of that happening. Because with that comes a lot of pressure. But I think with the Origin experience, it's kind of no different I suppose.

MC: Well you are still a kid, but no one is going to view you like that any more. Any leniency you had just being the young guy learning his trade is probably going to go. You see with Ben Hunt, as soon as you sign these big contracts you have to deliver right? That's just the nature of the beast.

NC: I definitely understand that. There's been some prime examples of that. You just have to look at Benny Hunt this year. It's a pretty harsh world out there. You can look at Mitchell Pearce in the past as well. Neither of those guys have deserved the criticism they got. Unfortunately, you can't change that though. It's the nature of the beast and I'm ready to take that on board. As hard as it will be, the only way to block out the noise and criticism is to play good footy and win games.