Dally M double for Clearys would top remarkable run for Panthers
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Dally M double for Clearys would top remarkable run for Panthers

Ivan Cleary should be "Winx-like odds" to be crowned coach of the year and complete what will be an historic Dally M father-son double, according to Panthers chief executive Brian Fletcher.

But while Nathan Cleary is expected to be the runaway winner of the game's most prestigious gong on Monday night, rival clubs believe Ivan will get stiff competition from Melbourne's Craig Bellamy, Canberra's Ricky Stuart and even New Zealand Warriors caretaker coach Todd Payten.

The 29 Dally M judges cast their votes on a 3-2-1 basis for the coaches at the end of the regular season, where Cleary's Panthers finished five points clear of their rivals at the top of the ladder with 15 straight victories.

No father-son pair have ever won the game's top playing and coaching awards in the same season.

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Bellamy, a five-time winner of the coaching award, kept the Storm players humming while stationed away from family and friends on the Sunshine Coast, with chief executive Dave Donaghy admitting the achievement was overlooked because "Craig and his team normalises excellence".

Payten somehow got the best out of the homesick Warriors in Terrigal, while Stuart's Raiders spent more than 50 hours in the air and on the road travelling to games – including "home games" at Campbelltown – while nursing a bulging casualty ward.

Panthers boss Fletcher, however, who spent years turning Hawkesbury Race Club into a powerhouse, likened Cleary's achievement to the mighty mare Winx.

Nathan and Ivan Cleary are set to collect an historic father-son Dally M double on Monday night.

Nathan and Ivan Cleary are set to collect an historic father-son Dally M double on Monday night.Credit:Getty

Cleary collected the coaching gong in 2014 when he took the Panthers to a preliminary final.

"It's been a Winx-like performance with 15 wins to finish the regular season," Fletcher said. "Ivan went through the hard times last year. He's such a good person, he's so collaborative, he wants the success shared.

"How long has it been since someone coached 15 and now 16 straight? How can you beat that?

"Winx kept getting horse of the year because she kept winning. Ivan has done the same this year."

Nathan is the odds-on favourite to win the players' award, especially after the NRL was forced to admit the halfback had never been docked six points for his two-match TikTok ban.

Bellamy's win last year was later overshadowed by a betting scandal with two men using inside information to back the Storm coach. One of the men, Joshua Wilson, 29, fronted court this week and revealed how the bets had later cost him in excess of $10 million in shares in his own companies. The NRL has since abandoned betting on Dally M awards.

The Storm moved to the Sunshine Coast for what they thought might be just a few weeks to escape the lockdown in Melbourne, only for COVID to take hold in the Victorian capital.

Storm chief executive Dave Donaghy told The Sun-Herald: "The Warriors are the only other team impacted to the extend we have.

Craig Bellamy lays down the law at training on the Sunshine Coast.

Craig Bellamy lays down the law at training on the Sunshine Coast.Credit:Getty

"And Craig, as well as [football manager] Frank Ponissi, have led the charge inside our bubble. They've been away from their homes for over 100 days, almost four months. Yet they've not made any excuses, they've gotten on with the job and incredibly made a sixth straight preliminary final [and now another grand final].

"It's an extraordinary achievement. I think it's one that's been overlooked somewhat, probably because Craig and this team normalises excellence. But what they do isn't normal. They are anything but, and I’m in awe of what they’ve achieved this year."

The Warriors were forced to relocate to Australia in order for the NRL to continue and were based in Tamworth before they settled in picturesque Terrigal. Stephen Kearney was sacked after round six before Payten stepped forward and got the homesick players to win six games.

"Our actual coaching unit deserve it – Stacey Jones, Tony Iro, Justin Morgan and Todd Payten," Warriors boss Cameron George said of the coaching effort. "The way those guys responded and led the playing group through such a difficult time was nothing short of outstanding.

"In fairness to everyone, and I generally mean this, the manner in which all coaches this year responded to the adversity of the competition and the level of footy that was played, it shows we've got a really good bunch of coaches out there. And they stuck solid when training stalled for that period of time to allow us to get into Australia."

As for Stuart's hopes, Raiders boss Don Furner said: "We've overcome the most travel, had to play home games at Campbelltown, we've had injuries, eight debutants and Stick [Stuart] continued to get them up after a grand final loss. He didn't let them to wallow. And he somehow got them humming at the right time of the year, winning eight of our last 10 games."

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