Bennett breaks silence on ‘handshake deal’ with Gould
Wayne Bennett has blasted speculation he held secret talks with former Penrith supremo Phil Gould in an explosive build-up to Saturday night's Souths-Panthers grand-final qualifier at ANZ Stadium.
Buffeted by 12 months of rumours that he privately agreed to join Penrith, Bennett has come out swinging, lashing Panthers chairman Dave O'Neill over claims the super coach had done a handshake deal with Gould.
Bennett and Gould waged a high-powered feud for more than 20 years but they appeared to have put aside their differences when O'Neill said last year: "Gus (Gould) came to me after he'd reached an understanding with Bennett and said to me we can have him if we want him."On Monday, O'Neill said Penrith had rejected Gould's pursuit of Bennett
in favour of Ivan Cleary, a decision vindicated by the Panthers' surge to this year's minor premiership.
But as Bennett and Cleary prepare to square off in the Souths-Panthers sudden-death showdown, the Rabbitohs coach has had enough of Penrith's high-level claims that he was in talks with long-time enemy Gould.
"That is absolute garbage," Bennett said. "I have never looked at going to Penrith.
"There was a lot of talk around my future during that time at the Broncos when I was sacked (in December 2018). I have never met Dave O'Neill ... I wouldn't know him if he walked past me tomorrow."
The Penrith innuendo surrounding Bennett adds a spicy edge to the preliminary final as the 70-year-old looks to knock out the Panthers and qualify for a remarkable 10th grand-final appearance.
Bennett was co-coach of Canberra in the 1987 decider before winning six premierships at the Broncos. He won a seventh title at the Dragons in 2010, only to suffer a heartbreaking extra-time loss as Broncos coach in their 2015 grand final against the Cowboys.
Asked if he did a handshake deal with Gould to coach Penrith, Bennett said: "I have never spoken to one person at Penrith. I never had one phone call from them. I didn't talk to Gus Gould ... no one.
"If Phil Gould wanted me, I would have no idea. I was never privy to one thing.
"The truth is this; the only team that I ever talked to was the Wests Tigers.
"There was a three-year deal with them on offer and I would have done the deal with the Tigers if the Broncos were up front with me and told me they were going to sack me for 2019.
"I gave my word I was staying at the Broncos and I intended to honour my final 12 months, so that's why I knocked back the Tigers.
"I never chased the Penrith job. I have been associated and linked with every club. Apparently I was going to New Zealand earlier this year. I've always said I was happy at Souths and I would honour my contract at Souths and here I am."
The Rabbitohs were given no hope of a premiership tilt when star fullback Latrell Mitchell snapped his hamstring a month before the finals.
But after a 60-8 thumping of the Roosters in the final round and two sudden-death finals defeats of Newcastle and Parramatta, Bennett said his Rabbitohs were prepared to "pay the price" for the club's 22nd title.
"I see that in this team," he said. "A lot of people wrote us off, they thought we were gone when we lost Latrell. But I never felt that. There's a great chemistry and sacrifice among the boys and hopefully I have built on it."
Originally published as Bennett breaks silence on 'handshake deal' with Gould