Ivan Cleary has called on the NRL to "make a decision" on whether coaches should be allowed to voice their concerns around officiating in the lead-up to a match after a week of hostility.
After Saturday night's qualifying final loss to Souths in Townsville, he conceded he was guilty of publicly voicing his concerns towards the officiating around his son Nathan being targeted by Rabbitohs defenders after kicks this week.
Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett responded to Cleary's concerns on Friday in a fiery media conference.
"I was personally guilty of trying to put our case forward this week, only because I had to," Cleary said.
"I had to respond. This is probably not the forum to talk about it but the NRL has got to make a decision about whether they are going to allow coaches to deliberately manipulate referees and try influence them.
"Coaches do it because they can. We get fined afterwards but pre-game it is pretty much open slather.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Rabbitohs
"Our boys have certainly been spoken to on the run for stuff we never get done for so I'd suggest that type of thing has an influence.
"I was guilty of it myself because I had to but I think the game could do itself a favour and come down hard on any coach who deliberately tries to influence a match official before the game."
Bennett responded to Cleary's comments again on Saturday night, agreeing with his opposition coach but not holding back in how the week's events unfolded by saying his rival "should have kept his mouth shut".
"I said nothing publicly. This happened three weeks ago. I sent some information to the referees for clarification," Bennett said.
"So I wasn’t going public with anything until Penrith started to come out and they started the public statements.
"I just responded to those. I wasn’t going to sit back and not stand up for my team and my players."
Cleary lamented the side's ability to "ice" key moments in their shock 16-10 loss to South Sydney on Saturday night but welcomed the challenge of playing again next week.
The usually fast-finishing Panthers struggled to get any momentum throughout the second half with the Rabbitohs coming up with a strong defensive display to unsettle Cleary's side.
The advantage accrued by their second-place finish in the regular season has now evaporated with the Panthers set for a sudden-death semi-final clash against either Parramatta or Newcastle next week.
"That's the challenge ahead of us [now]," Cleary said.
"We had to win three games in the finals to win [the title] and nothing has changed. I don't think we'll lose too many friends from tonight.
"It just came down to opportunities that we didn't ice that you need to in those games, that's just facts."
Sublime kicking skills of Cleary on show early
Stephen Crichton stepped up for Dylan Edwards (foot) with over 290 metres for the match but struggled with support play late in the game.
An error from Charlie Staines, who was unable to grasp a Crichton flick pass, and line breaks from Viliame Kikau and Jarome Luai that ended with errors, added to the Panthers' frustration.
"It was a tough, tight game where it could've gone either way," Cleary said.
"I was pretty happy to go into 10-10 at half-time. I thought they had more opportunities than we did in the first half for various reasons.
"The second half we gave up an early try. That was disappointing. For the rest of the half I thought we were just grinding away and had them where we wanted them.
"We had three or four opportunities where we didn't ice them when we'd like to think we probably could.
"That's probably enough for a game like that. I don't think it was a sense of panic."
Cleary was also left frustrated with the side's discipline with Isaah Yeo (crusher) and Mitch Kenny (high contact) among those placed on report.
"A lot of times in the game they were able to get a leg up for little things – high tackles and supposed crusher tackles, that kind of stuff – that happened so often tonight," Cleary said.
"They came up with a one-on-one strip and [we had] a false crusher. It was one of those nights.
"There were definitely things we could've controlled that we didn’t."
Edwards and Moses Leota (calf) are expected to be available for the side next week.