Bennett, 70, shot down the storyline of him being linked to the Panthers in 2018 via his weekly newsletter in The Courier-Mail. The news former Panther Jed Cartwright would replace the injured Campbell Graham in the centres was also met with scepticism at the foot of the mountains.
The Panthers are certainly not regretting their move to sign Cleary instead of Bennett.
We believed in our team and the capability of it well before anyone else believed in us.
Cleary, 49, was calm as he spoke about the ANZ Stadium blockbuster. He said the external belief in his young side had been there since the start of pre-season.
“We believed in our team and the capability of it well before anyone else believed in us,” Cleary said.
“All that has happened the last four months is it’s provided more evidence of that belief and confidence.
“We left that [Roosters] game [two weeks ago] feeling like there was certainly more in us and we didn’t get everything right.
“I was happy we had that game under the belt. It was a first finals game for a lot of our boys.
“That first finals weekend, a lot of teams that struggled with the different intensity, whether you had played in them or you hadn’t. It was good for our boys to get through that game.”
As for the winning streak, which could tick over to 17 on Saturday night, Cleary said: “People have stopped talking about and asking about it.
“Before I got here, I think the best I’d been involved in as a coach was six. Then we got seven last year. We’ve gone a fair way past that. But it’s not important now. It’s down to one game and that’s tomorrow night. That’s all that counts.”
Cleary is backing Kurt Capewell to get the job done on the left edge for the suspended Billy Kikau. He also praised Brent Naden, the Indigenous centre whose family and friends are all passionate Souths fans and tried to bait him all week.
Naden returned in the round-seven clash against Souths and has not looked back.
“‘Nado’ had to make way for Stephen Crichton when we came back from COVID, ‘Critter’ has gone on to bigger and better things, and Nado has played left centre, left wing, right centre and right wing,” Cleary said.
“He’s been our lucky charm for our team as well. He’s a great team guy who is great for the energy around here.”
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Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.