The moment that triggered Penrith Panthers coach Ivan Cleary to cheekily blow kisses to Wests Tigers fans following a narrow win on Saturday night has been revealed.
The Panthers were victorious 19-12 in a spiteful NRL clash at Bankwest Stadium in what was the first game between the two teams in Sydney since Cleary’s controversial exit as Tigers coach to join Penrith after the 2018 season.
Following Penrith’s win Cleary was caught on camera blowing kisses to chirpy Tigers supporters from his coach’s box which drew a mixed reaction from NRL fans in the aftermath of the game.
“I’m not used to fans. It’s been a while since there’s been any, but it was just an incident [where I] probably wish I didn’t do anything, but I could have done worse,” Cleary explained in his post-match press conference.
“It’s all good, there’s no dramas.
“It was an emotional game. There was a lot of emotion there for sure.
“I didn’t like what he [the fan] said to me. But as I said, I’m not used to fans probably. I was probably a bit emotional, but I’m glad I didn’t do what I felt like doing.”
As social media reacted to Cleary’s actions, the fan responsible for provoking the coach’s teasing gesture spoke about the incident on Twitter.
“The pointing to the scoreboard, sarcastic clapping and blowing kisses was [for] me, after I told him what I thought of the way he treated our club,” Tigers supporter and former Fox Sports News producer Nicholas Zorbas said on Twitter.
Zorbas said his 12-year-old son had first given Cleary a – presumably sarcastic – thumbs-up at the full-time siren, which the Panthers coach returned in kind to the young fan, setting off Zorbas to give Cleary a piece of his mind.
After an expletive-filled rant from Zorbas, Cleary then pointed to the scoreboard and blew a kiss back in the Tigers fan’s direction.
“[I] think I hate Penrith more than the Bunnies and Dogs now. Was so angry at [full-time],” Zorbas tweeted.
“We were gallant and unlucky on so many occasions – and just let fire to a person I lost all respect for after how he treated our club. Hope my boy doesn’t remember some of the words I used.
“I was fed up. That ref was pathetic, the rub of the green went against us and I just really hate him and how he shafted us last season. Don’t get me started on his son.”
Cleary explains why he was blowing kisses to Tigers fans
Cleary’s son, star Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary, spoke to Nine’s The Sunday Footy Show about the incident and was just as surprised at his father’s reaction as fans were.
“I don’t know what he was doing there,” Cleary junior said.
“I think that was part of the feeling … it was all just fun and games. I think the Tigers fans were getting into him, so just a bit of banter.
“Mum was stuck into him after the game as well.
“I saw it after the game and went up to him and said ‘Did you actually do that?’ He shook his head and said, ‘Yes’.”
Wests Tigers chairman Lee Hagipantelis was fuming at Cleary’s actions in commenting to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“It was unacceptable and unprofessional,” Hagipantelis said.
“Those of us involved in the administration of the game should not be engaging in such a manner. I don’t think what Ivan did was particularly helpful.
“I noticed that he said after the game that he regretted doing it, so at least there was an acknowledgement that it wasn’t the preferred course of conduct.
“It was just unnecessarily antagonistic. Ivan is fully aware of his history with our club and the manner in which he departed. I don’t think it was necessary for him to inflame the passions.”
NRL Highlights: Tigers v Panthers – Round 8
Penrith Panthers chairman Dave O’Neill was quick to defend his under-fire coach though.
“I thought it was great of him to show passion for our club,” O’Neill said.
“I had no problem with it whatsoever. I don’t know what was said or what happened, but it was good to see the passion Ivan showed for our great club. I wish the Tigers all the best for the rest of the year.”