There will be a reunion of sorts in the two coaching boxes on Saturday afternoon when the Panthers and Warriors go head-to-head at BlueBet Stadium.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary began his first grade coaching career with the Warriors in 2006, guiding them to a grand final in 2011, while Warriors mentor Andrew Webster spent the 2021 and 2022 seasons as an assistant to Cleary at Penrith.
Cleary said he was proud of Webster and happy for what the Warriors have achieved in 2023, but is also wary of the New Zealanders, particularly with halfback Shaun Johnson out with a calf injury. Not that Johnson’s injury has been a major focus for them.
“We sort of heard the news yesterday and weren’t even sure if it was true or not,” Cleary said.
“In the end we decided we weren’t even going to discuss it, so we haven’t at this point. I don’t think we’ll discuss it much today.
“We’re playing a team, a very good team. The most important thing for us is to get our own game on and that’s what we will continue to focus on.”
Speaking of his former assistant Webster, Cleary said he was unsurprised on the impact that he has had on the Warriors since taking over at the start of the season.
“‘Webby’ is an outstanding coach,” he said.
“No one knew, but we always knew. He’d been there before, so he understood the culture there, which is important, and he’s just the right type of personality. Great guy, great coach, has done a great job and I’m sure he’s going to have a great career. I’m really happy for him.”
While coaching at the Warriors, Cleary got a first-hand experience at the culture of the fans that follow the Warriors.
During his time there, he coached two famous finals victories away against heavyweights the Melbourne Storm in 2008 and 2011, and while he enjoyed that time, he’ll be hoping to avoid a repeat of those results this year.
“I definitely have fond memories from my time over there,” Cleary said.
“It’s exciting for the fans, the whole country is pretty pumped about it.
“I think this year is probably a bit different (to 2011). What’s happened over the last few years, I think it’s really galvanised the support base over there. They haven’t been able to watch them play in three years.
“The footy they’ve been playing has been awesome. I don’t think we ever had a year like that when I was there.”
Despite the challenge facing them, Cleary was still confident with how his Panthers have prepared the game, knowing a win will give them a week off and a preliminary final in Sydney.
“If we play well enough, then we limit their opportunities.
“I’m very happy with how we’ve prepared.”