Bennett backs Penrith’s three-peat chances as Cleary eyes return
Wayne Bennett can see no reason why defending premiers Penrith can’t claim a rare three-peat this season after his Dolphins side went down to an understrength Panthers on Sunday.
The Panthers are in the box seat to become the first club in the NRL era to achieve an historic three-straight titles after setting the tone for the competition this season.
Ivan Cleary’s men are on track to emulate the achievements of the Parramatta Eels side who were the last to notch three grand final victories in a row in a winning run that began in 1981.
Bennett, who won back-to-back titles twice in his coaching career, said the Panthers were going to be hard to beat as they enter the final six weeks of the regular season towards the finals.
Both Bennett and Cleary have clashed in recent seasons when the supercoach was in charge of the Rabbitohs, but the Dolphins coach spoke highly of how the Panthers were continuing their successful ways.
“There’s no reason why they can’t [win again],” Bennett said post-game.
“There’s a few teams out there that are good and they are one of them, so they have the confidence and the belief and they’re coming through a tough period at the moment.
“They left players out today, but we had players out injured today too that are pretty im to us, but there’s no reason why they can’t win three in a row.
“But it’s not going to be easy and they’ll know that.”
The Panthers – gunning for their fourth-straight grand final appearance – have emerged from this year’s State of Origin period relatively unscathed despite another heavy involvement of players in the New South Wales side.
Cleary said he was pleased his decision to rest the likes of Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin during the representative period had paid off, with young and inexperienced players stepping up to take their opportunities in first grade.
“I thought it was a really good win for a young team with some inexperienced guys,” Cleary said.
“It backed up the coach’s decision to rest the Origin boys, so that’s what I was pretty happy with as well.
“It is like phase two of our season when Origin starts. It is the third year we’ve been doing it where we’ve had a lot of players in there (Origin selection), so that affects a lot of things in-and-around preparation and training.
“To get five out of six (wins) in that period and (we) just lost in golden point in the other one; I am stoked with that, really happy. It is good for us to kick on into the last run into the finals.
“You do get sort of used to it, but it is always difficult. The challenges vary … our Origin boys are all pretty healthy. Hopefully, they are enjoying sitting back watching the game today from wherever they are.”
Ominously for their opposition who they are still to face, the Panthers are set to have playmaker Nathan Cleary back from a hamstring injury next week as the side push to create history in the coming months.
“Getting Nathan back next week is going to be a plus for us,” Cleary said.
“We have got three home games in a row so we are looking forward to getting back to our little community in Penrith. I just can’t wait to get back into it.”