PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MAY 17: Panthers coach Ivan Cleary speaks to the media after the round 10 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the New Zealand Warriors at Panthers Stadium on May 17, 2019 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Penrith Panthers coach Ivan Cleary has knocked back suggestions from South Sydney that the defending premiers use illegal blockers to protect halfback Nathan Cleary.

The calls come almost exactly a year after they were last raised, when then-coach Wayne Bennett accused the Panthers of employing the illegal tactic prior to their 2021 Grand Final confrontation.

But Cleary remembers last year’s fiasco, and hasn’t changed his take on the matter.

“It sounds like Groundhog’s Day,” Cleary told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“It’s exactly the same as what happened last year.

“Ashley Klein is a very experienced referee who will ref the game how he sees it. It’s part of the game. We haven’t been penalised (for blocking) this year I don’t think. We’re doing alright.

“(Nathan Cleary) has a target on his back every week. I don’t know how many games he’s played, but he knows what to do.”

The Panthers No.7 has appeared even more driven than usual since making his return from a five-week suspension, putting on a masterclass as the Panthers silenced the Eels in the first week of the finals.

According to his coach, Cleary had vowed to repay his teammates after missing so much of the end of the season through his own inadvertent negligence.

“He spoke about it on the night, he was gutted about it and felt like he’d let the team down,” the elder Cleary said.

“Since then (it’s been) head down and work hard, and he continues to. He’s pretty determined.”

While full of praise for his own roster of prodigious talent, Cleary is fully aware of the extensive threats posed by the Rabbitohs attack – led most prominently by ‘talisman’ Latrell Mitchell.

“He’s a big part of what they do. He’s a genuine superstar. He brings a lot of interest to the game,” Cleary said.

“He’s good to watch, he’s dangerous, talented, very confident and he’s a bit of a talisman for their team. He works really well with Cody (Walker) and young Lachlan Ilias has done a fantastic job and played really well throughout the finals as well.

“That’s not even mentioning Cam Murray and Damien Cook.

“We’ll have our hands full, but that’s what you expect in a preliminary final. Our boys are super keen and really looking forward to it.”