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The Fish that roared: How 'silent assassin' stunned Cleary

When James Fisher-Harris first arrived at Penrith, fellow Kiwi and housemate Corey Harawira-Naera did most of his talking for him.

Partly because the burly prop's thick North Island accent left teammates at suxes and sivins, mostly because Fisher-Harris is naturally a church mouse in a big cat's body.

Until he crosses that white line.

Ivan Cleary and his coaching staff were left stunned when they heard that same New Zealand accent, loud and crystal clear, booming through the mic they fitted to Fisher-Harris in last year's 54-10 final-round thumping of Newcastle.

"We mic'd him up for that game just to see what he was like on the field," Cleary told NRL.com ahead of Sunday's grand final.

Panthers v Storm - Grand final

"It was something we identified, improving our communication throughout what's a very young team with a few introverts among them.

"We put the mic on Fish and I couldn't believe it.

"I was just stunned by how much he was talking and how often it was in a game. It was really cool for us as coaching staff.

James Fisher-Harris trains at Penrith in grand final week.
James Fisher-Harris trains at Penrith in grand final week. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"For all I know he might've always been that way on the paddock. He does talk off the field, but not a lot.

"He talks in actions and uses his eyebrows mostly to be honest. [But] when he does everyone listens and he makes his point when he has to.

"He's become a real leader in our team. It's something that he's keen to develop as well."

Dally M Team of the Year - Front and second row

In concert with captain James Tamou and NSW Origin hopeful Isaah Yeo, Fisher-Harris has driven Penrith's young pack that leads the NRL for run metres (1878m per game) and those made post contact (655 per game).

Fisher-Harris ranks second overall in both categories and had his superb 2020 campaign crowned with Dally M prop of the year honours alongside Canberra's Josh Papalii.

His showdown with fellow New Zealand front-rowers Jesse Bromwich and Nelson Asofa-Solomona looms as one of the most critical battles in what is predicted to be a wet-weather trophy decider.

A phenomenal motor is the foundation of Fisher-Harris's colossal contributions, with Panthers coaches struggling at times to keep him from training non-stop and prevent him from losing too much weight.

"Fish has got a good engine on him and he's a fit guy," Cleary said.

"We do have to hold him back. We've rested guys from training this year to manage their load.

"Guys like Fish and Zane Tetevano, you just can't stop them. We almost have to force him to sit still, you'll always prefer a bloke to be like that rather than looking for a break.

"Once you explain it's for his benefit - he's a sponge for information - he respects his coaches and listens to us, so begrudgingly he has a rest.

"But he also doesn't know when he's had enough. You'll be watching him play thinking he's gone. And then he'll find something else, that inner drive is so impressive."

Fellow Dally M team of the year member Viliame Kikau has a whole new appreciation of Fisher-Harris's work ethic as his training partner during the COVID-19 shutdown earlier this year.

Panthers v Storm - Grand final

Cleary confirmed pairing Kikau up with the Kiwi international was a deliberate ploy and "an absolute bonus" that led to the Fijian second-rower reporting for duty again in peak condition.

"I thought I knew him until I trained with him for those six weeks and I was like far out," Kikau laughed this week.

"He's built different mentally, he's all footy. He's a training freak. After a big session he'll come back in the gym and do weights.

"I think some of the boys don't talk to him because they're scared of him.

"In videos he doesn't say much. But when he's on the training paddock or on the field that's where he does it talking.

"Everyone just respects him.

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"Last year and this year the coaches have seen a big change in him because he's been chatting heaps which is good for us.

"He's one of the loud middles which is pretty hard to be talking that much if you're a middle.

"Shouting kick pressures, pretty much just general stuff.

"We're really lucky to have him. Everyone respects him. He does this talking on the field but as soon as he comes off he's the quietest one."