The Penrith Panthers board voted unanimously to sign Ivan Cleary over Wayne Bennett because no one was “interested at all” in the super coach.
That extraordinary revelation was just made by Panthers chairman Dave O’Neill to The Sydney Morning Herald, with Bennett – as South Sydney coach – about to face Penrith for a spot in the NRL grand final.
Former Panthers general manager Phil Gould had struck a handshake deal for Bennett to coach the club as Anthony Griffin’s tenure wound to a close during 2018. Yet O’Neill was at the same time pursuing Cleary, who had previously coached the club. Bennett has won seven premierships, against none for Cleary.
“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.”
O’Neill’s comments will add spice to Saturday’s preliminary final, where Bennett may deny the Panthers a grand final spot that seems their for the taking. Penrith have so far been vindicated this season by picking Cleary, who overcame a nightmare first year in charge to win the minor premiership. Cleary’s son, star halfback Nathan, has led the charge this season.
O’Neill said that Cleary’s history with the club was key, saying: “Wayne Bennett is a fantastic coach but he wouldn’t have known the first thing about Penrith.”