Fuse lit for fiery final as Panthers bite back at Bennett — no one was interested in him
South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett during training.Source: News Corp Australia
The fuse has well and truly been lit for a blockbuster preliminary final showdown between South Sydney and Penrith on Saturday.
Specifically between Wayne Bennett and the club that chose to snub him when it was searching for a new coach two years ago.
The Panthers turfed Anthony Griffin from the job before the 2018 NRL season had ended, and inserted Cameron Ciraldo in an interim capacity while the hunt began.
Phil Gould, who was then head of football at Penrith, approached Bennett and the pair reportedly settled on a handshake deal that the supercoach would move to the western Sydney club once his reign at the Broncos ended.
But Penrith powerbrokers ultimately ignored that agreement and instead hired Ivan Cleary to coach the team.
Two years later Bennett has the chance to show the Penrith board they made a mistake by not honouring his deal with Gould.
Penrith chairman Dave O’Neill has now fired somewhat of a shot at the now-Rabbitohs coach in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.
O’Neill claims the Panthers never seriously considered hiring Bennett.
Souths dominate the Eels
“When I told the board that I had spoken to Ivan, we were all pretty comfortable to head in that direction but we did our due diligence and discussed what our other options could be,” O’Neill told the Herald.
“I mentioned the Bennett deal that Gus had told me about and there wasn’t one board member who was interested at all. It was never going to get off the ground.
“We were pretty clear that Ivan was our man. We’re happy with that decision.
“We copped a lot of flak for signing Ivan last year, but we did so on a five-year deal knowing that he was the right man for us.
“He had a connection with the place and knew what Penrith was about.
Rabbitohs press conference
“Wayne Bennett is a fantastic coach but he wouldn’t have known the first thing about Penrith.”
O’Neill’s comment came after Bennett ignited the preliminary final fire with his own cheeky swipe.
The supercoach says of all the teams in the competition, he’s watched the Panthers play the least this season.
Whether it was just some Bennett mind games only the coach will know.
“To be honest, they are the team I’ve watched least all season,” Bennett said after his Bunnies beat the Eels on Saturday.
“We played them early in the season and haven’t come across them again.
“I’ll be honest, we’ve hardly looked at them.
“A lot of times, you play a team when you’re going through the rounds and you see other teams they are playing.”
The Panthers beat the Rabbitohs 20-12 back in Round 7… the last time Bennett claims to have seen Penrith play.
He says South Sydney is a better side now than it was back then.
“We’ve been getting better,” he said.
“The Round 7 team aren’t the major semi-final team you’ve just seen here tonight.
“I think we played about 70 per cent of our ability tonight. I thought we were better last week [in the win over Newcastle].
“We’ve got to find a bit more, and we’ve got the opportunity to do that.”