Bennett revives Cleary feud for NRL decider

WAYNE Bennett and Ivan Cleary will renew hostilities when South Sydney meet Penrith in this Sunday’s NRL Grand Final in Brisbane.
The two coaches waged a war of words after the Rabbitohs upset the Panthers in week one of the playoffs, and journalists are sure to stoke the fire in the build-up this week.
Much of the talk before the Bunnies’ 16-10 boil-over three weeks ago surrounded the kick pressure on Penrith halfback and Ivan’s son Nathan Cleary.
Post-game, the Panthers’ coach accused Bennett of trying to “deliberately manipulate referees” by highlighting how Penrith block defenders to protect Cleary’s kicks.
The Souths veteran then struck back at Cleary’s “mouthing off”, saying, “If that’s manipulating the game, you’re all kidding yourselves”.
The clash of the coaches is a feisty subtext to an all-Sydney Grand Final curiously being played in Brisbane due to an ongoing COVID-19 lockdown in New South Wales, where the Grand Final is traditionally held.
The spotlight will shine brightly on the two coaches — one entering his 886th and final game, chasing his eighth Premiership; the other taking charge of game number 370, hunting his first title.
Ivan Cleary steered the Panthers into last year’s decider before succumbing to the Storm, and has taken his team back to the big one for another shot at silverware in 2021.
This season’s challenge has perhaps been tougher, thanks to lengthy injuries to Nathan Cleary and Brian To’o following the mid-year State of Origin series.
But Penrith’s miserly defence held strong, no matter who the personnel were on the park, leaking just 314 points all season — an average of just 11.6 per game.
Cleary’s charges will start favourites with the bookmakers to collect their third title, but a string of departures — including Bennett’s — has many neutrals backing ‘the Pride of the League’ to collect their 22nd Premiership.
Thirty-four years after Bennett co-coached Canberra to the 1987 decider, the 71-year-old leads the Rabbitohs into his 10th Grand Final as a first-grade mentor.
A grand final at the ground where he forged his legend as Broncos boss is a fitting way for the ex-England and Great Britain coach to draw the curtain on his peerless career, as he prepares to hand the Rabbitohs’ clipboard to former Rochdale, Widnes, Wakefield and Keighley centre Jason Demetriou next season.
Brisbane-bound halfback Adam Reynolds, Newcastle signing Dane Gagai and the retiring Benji Marshall fill the Bunnies’ dressing room with even more emotion.
While Gagai is chasing his first NRL crown before re-joining the Knights, the other two both have fond memories of the first Sunday in October.
Marshall delivered the Wests Tigers their one and only title some 16 years ago — the highlight of his 19 years in the NRL, which will come to an end with his 347th appearance against the Panthers.
Reynolds also tasted success in his only decider to date in 2014, tallying 14 points to help end South Sydney’s 43-year title drought.