Wests Tigers ready to dig in over Cleary

Steve Zemek

Penrith are headed for a stand off with Wests Tigers as they attempt to lure back Ivan Cleary, the coach they unceremoniously sacked for being too tired three years ago.

Less than 24 hours after axing coach Anthony Griffin - despite his team being fifth on the ladder and facing a payout of more than $1 million - the club reportedly sounded out Cleary about a four-year deal to return.

However Wests Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe was adamant they would not grant Cleary an early release from his contract which expires in 2020.

"No mate we would not," said Pascoe, with members of the Tigers board determined to dig their heels in.

The benefits for Cleary of overcoming past resentment and rejoining the Panthers are obvious - a rich roster of talent, multi-million dollar facilities and the chance to coach his son, NSW Origin halfback Nathan Cleary.

However, he would find it hard to walk away from the Tigers, having promised to rebuild them when he replaced Jason Taylor mid-season last year and recruited the likes of Ben Matulino and Russell Packer to play under him again.

Is Ivan Cleary headed back to the Panthers. Pic: Getty

It would not sit well with his famous directive to his players to "get on the bus" made at his first press conference as Tigers coach.

On Tuesday, Gould acknowledged the Panthers had a preferred candidate though he could make no guarantee they would land him.

He believed he had a good relationship with Cleary despite having sacked him.

"It's good. I don't see him all that often, but I've got no problem with Ivan," Gould said. "I've known him for 25 years."

It's believed Wayne Bennett is also high on Penrith's list of potential coaches but Gould was confident they would secure a quality replacement regardless after being swamped with inquiries.

"We've already had 12 applications come in overnight from people within the game," Gould said.

"Other assistant coaches and even some head coaches from other clubs."

With his future uncertain at Brisbane, seven-time premiership coach Bennett is seen as someone who could deliver the Panthers a title in the short-term.

The 68-year-old is contracted at the Broncos until the end of next year but the club has attempted to sign Paul Green and Craig Bellamy in recent months and Bennett has made it clear he wants to carry on coaching.

Gould himself last week said Bennett's position at the Broncos in 2019 was untenable but the pair are said to have a strained relationship.

Asked about working alongside Bennett, Gould said: "That'd be fun wouldn't it? Crikey. Could he work with me?

"I'm not talking about individuals, that's ridiculous.

"I don't know what Wayne is doing at the Broncos at the moment. I don't know what the Broncos are doing either.

"It's got nothing to do with us."