‘As sick as I’ve seen him’: Inside Ivan Cleary’s private health battle to make NRL grand final

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary embraces his son Nathan after securing back-to-back NRL premierships. MARK KOLBE/GETTY IMAGES

Two-time premiership-winning coach Ivan Cleary has detailed the mid-season health crisis which left him in intensive care with blood clots on his lungs, enough for his wife Bec to say it was “scary and as sick as I’ve seen him”.

Months after a serious knee infection developed into a condition which required hospitalisation and several games away from active coaching duty, Ivan admitted the situation was “serious” as he slept for hours on end on the family’s couch.

Cleary still carried a limp on grand final day as he walked down to the Accor Stadium sideline minutes before Penrith sealed back-to-back titles against Parramatta.

“He was struggling [this year],” Bec told the Sydney Morning Herald. “He could hardly walk. He was very sick. Then he got the blood clots. That was pretty scary. If they hadn’t got that when they did, who knows what would have happened. They got it at a good time, and they looked after him.

“He’s never ever missed a day of coaching, whether he’s sick or not. This year I knew how sick he was because he couldn’t go to work.

“He was just on the lounge all day, asleep on the lounge. He’d come to bed occasionally but [then] go back on the lounge because he couldn’t sleep properly. He was really sick. Sick as I’d ever seen.”

Ironically, Cleary missed his first match this season when the Eels snapped the Panthers’ long winning run at BlueBet Stadium, and then he wasn’t allowed to fly to Brisbane for the Magic Round blockbuster against Melbourne.

He watched over several training sessions while on crutches, but the Panthers largely kept his diagnosis private as assistants Cameron Ciraldo and Andrew Webster stepped up. Ciraldo (Bulldogs) and Webster (Warriors) will leave Penrith to take head coach roles next year.

“It definitely got serious at one point and I had to miss a game because of that and then I couldn’t fly for a couple of weeks,” Ivan Cleary said.

“I’d been coaching for 16 years and hadn’t missed a game and then all of a sudden, I missed three or four. But I was lucky. The boys played well and did their job, but it was a pretty weird time.

“It’s a strange experience watching your team play live on the couch. It’s totally different to normal. What it did give me was a lot of confidence that the leaders had grown.

“When I got the blood clots it was a bit of a scare, but I was in good hands. I had the best nurse in Australia [Bec] looking after me, so I was OK.”

Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai said the club’s players were aware how grave Ivan’s health situation was during the middle of the year.

“He was in a bit of a dark patch, but he’s a strong dude,” Luai said. “He kept trying to come to games and show that he was alright. We sort of knew he was going to get through it. We kept him in our prayers.

“It just shows the resilience we have in our sport. He led the way and we drew strength from that.”

Cleary has taken the Panthers to three straight grand finals and will bring Ben Gardiner, Michael Maguire’s former assistant at the Tigers, to Penrith next year as he farewells Ciraldo and Webster.

Cleary and son Nathan have both signed mega deals which tie them to the Panthers until the end of 2027.

Asked about his feeling towards Ciraldo and Webster, Cleary said: “So proud. I love them as people first. They’re incredibly good at their jobs and they will make those clubs better immediately. And they’re living their dream. That’s just how it goes.

“I’m fortunate the club’s happy to keep going with me, I’m happy to keep doing it and I feel like I’m still improving and learning all the time. Those guys are both awesome and are totally ready to be head coaches. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done. They’re not taking my job so that’s good!”

Sydney Morning Herald

More Stories