Ivan Cleary.
Former Warriors coach Ivan Cleary says this has been the Kiwi club's biggest NRL campaign by far. Image by Jason O'BRIEN/AAP PHOTOS
  • rugby league

Warriors’ ride of emotion bigger than 2011 for Cleary

Scott Bailey September 8, 2023

If Ivan Cleary needed any reminder of the momentum around the Warriors’ first finals series in five years, it was staring him in the face at Penrith on Friday morning.

Driving into the club’s base at the foot of the mountains ahead of Saturday’s qualifying final, Cleary was greeted by around 50 Warriors fans outside their team’s hotel opposite the Panthers Leagues Club.

With music already booming before 8am, several Warriors players came out to meet fans. Even the Penrith coach couldn’t help but wave hello.

Cleary knows as well as anyone what this finals series means to the Warriors.

He was the club’s fullback in their first grand-final appearance in 2002, and their coach when they last made the decider in 2011.

“I definitely have very fond memories from my time over there,” Cleary said.

“They have this way about them as a club where once you’ve been there you are sort of always part of them, which I think is pretty cool.

“I just saw those guys all out there (in the car park), and I thought that’s exciting for them. I know the whole country’s pretty pumped about it. Which is amazing.

“Great for the game of rugby league and great for the club. They have been through a lot over the last few years. And it’s just great to see him doing well.”

The Warriors are the feel good story of this year’s finals.

The club and their players spent the best part of 854 days stuck in Australia during COVID-19, with only brief breaks home in between.

“Up the Wahs” has become the unofficial slogan of September in New Zealand, plastered across the front pages of newspapers and read out in parliament.

The run to the 2011 grand final is to this point the most emotive month of rugby league in New Zealand, but in Cleary’s eyes this has easily topped it.

“I think this year is probably a little different,” Cleary said.

“What’s happened the last few years, I think it’s really probably galvanised the support base over there. They haven’t been able to watch them play for three years.

“And the footy they’ve been playing has been awesome.

“I don’t think we ever had a year like this when I was there. They’re probably going better.”

The only potential problem for the Warriors is the team they run into on Saturday.

The loss of Shaun Johnson (calf) has hit the visitors hard, with Dylan Walker the man most likely to move into the halves alongside Te Maire Martin given Luke Metcalf is also out.

Penrith have their own issues with Izack Tago (pectoral) ruled out on Friday, joining Jarome Luai on the sidelines with Tyrone Peachey to start at centre.

But this is a Panthers side in their prime hunting an NRL three-peat.

They have not lost to a fellow finalist since round one against Brisbane, while their record in finals in the past three years reads 8-2 while leaking 14.2 points per game.

And while the Warriors’ right edge has been lethal this year, Penrith’s left have only been scored on 15 times in 24 games this year.

“We’ve prepared all season for this,” Cleary said.

“I feel like our game stands up in finals, it suits finals. It’s just up to us to go out there and execute.”