Cleary can win NRL war with Bennett in GF

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Penrith players have heard the comparisons between Ivan Cleary and Brian Smith.

And frankly, before the NRL grand final against South Sydney, they don't care.

Cleary will on Sunday attempt to claim his first premiership as a player or coach, after two missed chances in each of the roles.

As per the numbers wheeled out all September, Cleary's run of 369 games coached for no premiership is second only to Smith's 601.

And no coach has ever won a premiership after going 250 games without one.

"We don't pay much attention to that," Penrith and NSW second-rower Liam Martin said.

"Ivan's big thing is blocking the external noise and focus internally.

"I don't think it will faze him too much, it definitely doesn't faze the playing group - we don't really care."

In many ways, comparing Cleary to premiership-winning coaches is unfair.

It doesn't take into account that for part of his career he was the master rebuilder, firstly at the Warriors.

That of eight finals appearances in the Warriors' 27-year existence, four came during Cleary's five seasons there.

That he is the only coach to sort out Wests Tigers' defence in his one full year there.

Or that he started the job at Penrith by taking a young side to the preliminary final in 2014, before returning to finish it with 17 straight wins last year and two straight deciders.

But still, it's a premiership the Clearys want.

"We definitely want to get that done," the coach's son Nathan said.

"But there's a lot of energy and pride within the group to try and get that win.

"I guess it's a bit of extra motivation (winning it for Ivan)."

What can't be disputed is that this Penrith team is Ivan Cleary's.

It is a squad built by the academy set up during his initial tenure, producing 13 members of Sunday's side.

Included in that are halves Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai, who have won a ridiculous 55 from 58 games together at all levels since the start of under-20s.

But ultimately, what Ivan Cleary will be judged on is whether he wins the war with Wayne Bennett on Sunday night.

The pair's battle over kick blockers in the lead-up to the qualifying final was one of the best storylines of the year, as was the public post-match fallout.

Penrith players insist it didn't impact on their preparations, but it's been notable this week Cleary has made an effort to not get involved.

After all, he has a far tougher task ahead in trying to beat Bennett on the field.

Eight have tried before in nine grand finals, with Bob Fulton in 1987 and Paul Green in 2015 the only to have succeeded.

"He just knows his players, what they need and how to get the best," Rabbitohs veteran Benji Marshall said.

"On grand final day you know players are going to turn up.

"It's the little things you need to do well and I think he's great at coaching that."

Marshall is just one of several in Souths' squad that can thank Bennett for a grand final spot.

Jaydn Su'A followed the coach from Brisbane, Dane Gagai reunited with him from Newcastle and he was a big lure for Jai Arrow.

Adam Reynolds has had his backing all year through contract disputes, while Cody Walker has found the balance needed in his game under the veteran mentor.

Rookie fullback Blake Taaffe can also thank Bennett for taking the heat off him with distractions, none more obvious than the battle with Cleary that stole the headlines.

That in itself has been part of Bennett's legacy, managing the game and everything around it better than anyone.

And it's a legacy that will only be enhanced if he delivers South Sydney a 22nd premiership in his farewell game in charge at the club.

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