Flattered Ciraldo coy on future after Panthers trounce Knights on his watch

Cameron Ciraldo says it’s flattering to know his is the name on everybody’s lips but the NRL’s next coach in waiting refuses to be drawn on whether he will leave the reigning premiers.

Ciraldo assumed head coaching duties with Ivan Cleary absent from Penrith’s 42-6 thrashing of the Newcastle Knights in front of 21,332 fans at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday.

In doing so, the Panthers improved to a 13-1 record and made the strongest start to a premiership defence since the 1995 Canberra Raiders.

Ask anybody at the Panthers and they’ll tell you what kind of impact Ciraldo has made, having taken control of a defence that is comfortably the best in the competition.

So it’s with good reason his name has been up in lights as the Wests Tigers, Canterbury Bulldogs and New Zealand Warriors hunt for a new coach.

But Ciraldo downplayed talk about his future when asked if he is ready to become a head coach.

That’s a big question. I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’ve got some pretty special relationships at this place, Ciraldo said.

I’ve got to look at what’s in my career and what’s down the track too. At the moment, I’m just focused on Penrith. I just wanted to really enjoy coming up to Newcastle and I definitely enjoyed how the boys played.

I know there’s been a lot of speculation, and it’s a credit to our club and players that they don’t let that become a distraction. I don’t think any of them have seen anything that has been written.

Obviously, it’s a little bit uncomfortable seeing your name in there all the time but it’s also very flattering. My job at the moment is to just keep doing the best I can for Penrith and keep improving on our defence. All that stuff will come in due time.

Missing Ivan Cleary for the third time this year due to medical advice stemming back to a knee infection which led to surgery, halfback Nathan Cleary showed once more why he is one of the best players in the game.

He scored a try, nailed a 40-20 which looked closer to a 30-5, and was close to perfect from the kicking tee to fire a timely reminder to his critics – and in Wednesday’s State of Origin series opener.

Kalyn Ponga lasted just 16 minutes before succumbing to a head knock, but the reality is Newcastle would have struggled to find answers to Penrith’s onslaught even with their mercurial fullback.

While Jarome Luai, Liam Martin, Stephen Crichton and Brian To’o were all back in Penrith colours, all eyes were glued to the Penrith No. 7.

Ciraldo said he knew Cleary would be close to the best on the park after returning from Origin, adamant we wouldn’t swap him for anyone.

Cleary says parking a disappointing result on the big stage was tough to do.

That’s the hardest part, but I had two days off after. It gave me time to assess what happened and put it behind me, and then focus on this game, Cleary said.

These boys are a pleasure to be around. They lift the energy and lift our spirits after a loss. I was just glad to play again after a not-so-good game on Wednesday. It gave me another opportunity to get better.

Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien says losing Ponga early in the first half following a collision with Penrith back-rower Viliame Kikau had a major impact on the Knights, who were forced to send Kurt Mann on at fullback.

But O’Brien says problems go far beyond the loss of their star skipper, having conceded 197 points in their past five games at home, a venue that was once a fortress.

There’s some stuff here that’s been ingrained for, I wouldn’t say years, I would say close to two decades that we need to get on top of and they’re not quick fixes, O’Brien said.

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