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South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett has hit back in an angry swipe at Penrith counterpart Ivan Cleary over a controversial issue that's overshadowed his side's thrilling NRL finals victory.
In a fiery aftermath to South Sydney's shock 16-10 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night, Bennett and Cleary traded barbs over the issue of pre-match manipulation of referees.
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The subject provided a spicy prelude to the qualifying final in Townsville after Cleary complained that Bennett had influenced the referees by complaining about Penrith's tactics prior to the game.
Cleary insinuated that referee Gerard Sutton had been influenced by Bennett's claims that Penrith kick blockers moved illegally to protect Nathan Cleary at the end of sets.
"The NRL has to make a decision on whether they are going to let coaches deliberately try and manipulate referees," Cleary said after the match.
"Coaches do it because they can. You get fined afterwards, but pre-game, it's open slather.
"Our guys were certainly being spoken to on the run for stuff we never get done for. I suggest that type of thing has an influence."
Bennett fired back when questioned about the subject in his own post-match press conference, blaming Cleary for dragging the issue into the public domain when it started out as a private matter between himself and the NRL.
"He was the one who came out and started mouthing off ... If he is critical he is critical of himself," Bennett said.
"South Sydney had no say whatsoever until he came out and started talking it up.
"There is no public manipulation. I saw an incident in a game I didn't like. Surely it's my right to ask the referees what their interpretation of that is.
"I am sure they can (handle that) because I am sure I am not the only coach to question decision making.
"But keep it in-house, I didn't put it out on the front pages."
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Bennett said he agreed with Cleary on public comment, but defended his right to ask questions of officials and again insinuated the NRL had leaked to Penrith.
"Ivan worked for the referees before he worked in coaching, I've got to assume he still has mates there," Bennett said.
The bad blood kicked off after Bennett went to the NRL in the wake of the round-23 clash between the teams, complaining that Penrith blockers were moving sideways and backwards to stop kick pressure.
That information reached the Panthers, prompting Cleary to go public last week in a plea to the NRL for them to protect his kickers from being hit illegally.
However, that only annoyed Bennett further, who on Friday launched an attack on both the Panthers' tactics and the NRL after he believed they leaked the information.
"I was guilty of (public commentary) because I had to respond," Cleary said.
Regardless, he claimed the commentary and calls to head office from coaches would only naturally influence officials.
"If you allow public manipulation and directly influencing it, I would say you are only human if you are a referee," Cleary said.
"You get phone calls (from the NRL) saying you need to tidy this area up, well why's that? It's because someone has complained about it."
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