In the lead-up to the NRL grand final, Ivan Cleary says he will resist the temptation to engage in another war of words with Wayne Bennett, who he believes is “probably the best coach of all time”.
The Panthers and Rabbitohs coaches hurled barbs at one another in the lead-up to their sides’ qualifying final, which South Sydney won in a major upset.
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The saga began when Cleary expressed concerns with defenders unfairly targeting Panthers playmaker and son Nathan.
Bennett countered by accusing the Panthers of running illegal blocking moves, which he said had been overlooked by the match officials. Cleary then claimed South Sydney’s poor defensive discipline, not oversight from the referees, was to blame for skewed the penalty count in the sides’ round 23 clash.
Cleary’s Panthers have defied the odds knock the Storm off and qualify for the decider but the coach won’t be throwing the gauntlet down in the week to follow. What’s more, Cleary denies even engaging with Bennett in the first place.
“I didn’t engage with Wayne, but I’m not going to be doing that (ahead of the grand final),” Cleary said.
The former Warriors and Tigers boss said he held Bennett in high esteem and rejected suggestion that the war of words distracted his players in the lead-up to the sides’ first finals meeting.
“Wayne is the best coach probably of all time, certainly in my memory,” he said.
“I’ll be doing what I am good at and staying in the background this week.”
The Panthers suffered just their fourth defeat of 2021, and their first with Nathan Cleary on the park, when they lost to Souths in week one of the play-offs.
It was a tight tussle, but the Rabbitohs managed to hold the Panthers scoreless in the second half and relegate them to an elimination semi-final, which they won by two points.
Cleary said his side was now familiar with the dangers of underestimating the men in cardinal and myrtle.
“I think both teams know each other pretty well,” he said.
“It is just about who is going to be the best team on the day.
“We feel like we didn’t bring our best that first week. Credit to Souths they were too good that night. We will see who is the better team next week.”