Wayne Bennett has returned serve to Ivan Cleary and the Panthers in a fiery response over claims South Sydney have put a heavy emphasis on targeting star halfback Nathan Cleary.
Bennett was asked for a response to a Sydney Morning Herald report on Friday morning in which Cleary questioned the Rabbitohs' discipline and tactics towards his son in recent performances.
Cleary then backed up the story on Friday morning in his pre-match media conference by adding South Sydney's 23 penalties in two games against his side in 2021 had proven they had gone above their usual average of four penalties per game to try and rattle his side.
"You can only go off the evidence," Cleary said.
"They're giving away plenty of penalties and their discipline hasn't been where it needed to be.
"It speaks for itself, I think."
However, Bennett fired back in a return for the ages, labelling Penrith's own tactics in protecting Cleary's kicking game as "illegal" and accusing them of practising unlawful block plays at training.
Bennett confirmed he had approached the NRL to get clarity on several incidents that came out of the match a fortnight ago, including Penrith's alleged use of illegal block plays.
He warned there would be a "response" on Saturday night if his defenders were unable to have a clear pathway in putting pressure on Cleary when he attempts to kick.
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"There's certainly an issue there, an issue for the game, not only South Sydney," Bennett said.
"The issue is the use of blockers last time we played Penrith, and it's happened before. It happened in State of Origin involving their players as well last year when I coached.
"They're setting up blocks. The bottom line is we haven't been able to get near Nathan and his kicks because we're getting blocked.
"Our kick chases are getting blocked by illegal blockers. I've asked for some direction from the NRL in recent times as to what our position was and what was allowed and what wasn't allowed.
"There's no doubt it's illegal what they do. You need to go look at the vision, it's there for all to see.
"They didn't get close to Nathan. You're allowed to have blockers in the game but not illegal. They're interfering with our line.
"They're either moving forward, backward or sideways to block that player from getting to the kicker.
There's no doubt it's illegal what they do.Wayne Bennett
"He [Cleary] was untouched in that [round 23] game. It's been going on for a while and the game needs to address it, now that we've made it public."
When asked if he was accusing the Panthers of cheating their way to the finals given his comments about their supposed training habits, Bennett added: "I'm not suggesting they cheat, I'm just saying they practise it at training.
"They might not see it as cheating, I don't know, you will have to ask them that question, but they'd be lying if they said they don't practise it.
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"You see the players going to position, you know it's a trained thing. You see how the players respond to when the kick is about to come on the fifth and last tackle.
"It just doesn't happen by coincidence."
The Panthers ended South Sydney's title hopes last season with a 20-16 preliminary final win.
Bennett's impending departure from Redfern at season's end adds to the desperate nature of both coaches in the lead-up to their latest finals campaigns.
A 12-month period that has included large representation in two State of Origin series has Cleary confident the Panthers would go into this year's finals better prepared for big games than last season's runners-up finish.
Panthers players Brian To'o, Jarome Luai and Liam Martin are among those who have had experience at the representative level while the side has overcome several injury hurdles throughout their latest campaign.
"It's been a better year for us, totally different," he said.
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"We've had a lot more adversity to work through and get through this year.
"There's no doubt experience in finals games can really help you. We got a fair bit of that last year for most of our team.
"We always respect the opposition and prepare through their strength and weaknesses.
"We've done that this week but we know how we play and what works for us best."
Cleary added the side will be "prepared for anything" amid talk Bennett could make a late change involving young gun Blake Taaffe.
However, Bennett shut that down quickly as well on Friday. "I'm not in the guarantee business but I'm telling you he's going to play fullback," he said.
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