Angry Tigers digging their heels in
HOP off the bus, Gus.
Penrith believe they have their man but defiant Wests Tigers are standing firm over coach Ivan Cleary.
The battle lines have been drawn over Cleary just a day after Penrith sacked coach Anthony Griffin four weeks out from the NRL finals.
Will Cleary's famous bus now detour via Penrith?
In a day of drama on Tuesday, well-placed sources close to Penrith claim Cleary was preparing to seek a release based on his desire to coach his son and Panthers halfback, Nathan Cleary.
Cleary is yet to seek a release, with Tigers management demanding he honour the final two years of an iron-clad contract.
Penrith say they haven't tabled a formal offer yet to Cleary.
The Tigers are stunned at Panthers general manager Phil Gould's bullish approach to Cleary and, if anything, are even more determined to retain him.
The Daily Telegraph can also reveal:
* Gould and Wayne Bennett spoke at the Immortals presentation night where the disgruntled Brisbane coach expressed preliminary interest in coaching Penrith, at the request of Gould. The Panthers though went cold the next day;
* A loose link was forged between Penrith and Paul McGregor, but the Dragons coach is highly unlikely to shift from Wollongong;
* The Panthers will not pursue Manly's coach Trent Barrett; and
* Former premiership-winning South Sydney coach Michael Maguire remains in the frame, possibly second choice behind Cleary.
Cleary was not commenting, further fuelling speculation on his future.
It's understood Penrith first approached Cleary two weeks ago through Panthers chairman Dave O'Neill, but the Tigers only found out about it on Monday night when Cleary contacted Wests chief executive Justin Pascoe.
Penrith publicly confirmed their interest in Cleary - a rare declaration given he is under contract at a rival club. However, under NRL rules, clubs are free to chase under-contract coaches from rival teams.
Insiders claim Penrith wouldn't have chased Cleary so hard - and so publicly - had the coach not shown some interest in a move.
Cleary's signature would bring about a swift re-signing of NSW Origin half Nathan Cleary.
The approach rattled Wests Tigers' board, which was adamant Cleary wouldn't be granted an early release. They say their club showed enormous faith in signing Cleary and the deal should be honoured.
A hefty payout from Penrith could alter the landscape, although the Tigers would take some convincing.
Claims of disloyalty were met with a swift reminder of the Tigers' recent history in sacking coaches mid-contract - Tim Sheens, Mick Potter and Jason Taylor - in the past six years.
It's believed Cleary wants to sort the issue - one way or the other - in the next few days, given his team remain an outside chance of qualifying for the NRL finals.
Should Cleary be released, Penrith would then lodge a formal offer of three or four years.
Gould fronted the media on Tuesday morning and said 12 applicants had lodged interest in the Panthers' top job, including five NRL coaches.
Although Cleary is their preferred choice.
Asked to describe his relationship with Cleary, Gould said: "Yeah, good. I don't see him all that often but I've got no problem with Ivan. I have known Ivan for 25 years."
Cleary is though still hurt at being sacked by Gould back in 2015.
"The Ivan decision was a decision that I made a couple of years ago. It was a decision in his best interests of Ivan and my best interests," Gould said.
"I believed I was right at the time, whether or not I was doesn't matter, I believed I was right, that's why the decision was made."
Former Panthers forward Martin Lang took to social media to express his feelings about Penrith: