SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Wests Tigers coach and father of Nathan Cleary, Ivan Cleary watches on from the stands during the NRL Semi Final match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Penrith Panthers at Allianz Stadium on September 14, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Penrith Panthers fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak says he’d welcome former coach Ivan Cleary back to the club with open arms.

Cleary was axed by the club back in 2015 and replaced by Anthony Griffin, who midway through last season left after failing out with Panthers Executive General Manager Phil Gould.

The former Warriors coach signed on with the Wests Tigers in the head coaching role for 2018 and enjoyed a brilliant first full season at the club.

Cleary took one of the predicted wooden spoon teams to a respectable ninth-place finish, missing out on the finals by six points.

Given Cleary’s recent success over the past year, the Panthers are looking to lure the once not-wanted coach back to the club, but continue to run into road blocks.

The Wests Tigers are refusing the release Cleary from his contract until they can find a suitable replacement for him, with rumours circulating Wayne Bennett is the man they’re after.

Watene-Zelezniak was first given his debut for the Panthers under Cleary in 2014 and when speaking with AAP says would love to have him back at the foot of the mountains.

“I have a lot of respect for Ivan,” Watene-Zelezniak told AAP.

“He gave me my NRL debut and helped me excel in my career. So if Ivan came back that would be a bonus.”

Penrith failed to make it past the second round of the finals losing to Cronulla in their semis with interim coach Cameron Ciraldo leading the club to finish fifth on the ladder.

Despite his public display of support for Cleary’s return, Watene-Zelezniak says the playing group will fully get behind whoever Gould picks for the job.

“I think ‘Gus’ knows what he’s doing and has the best interests of the club [at heart],” Watene-Zelezniak said.

“We’ve just got to let them do their job and we’ll do our jobs on the field.”

Watene-Zelezniak has played both the fullback and wing positions for Penrith this season, but the 23-year old has expressed his interest in moving away from the sidelines.

“Fullback’s where I grew up playing and it’s obviously my preferred position,” Watene-Zelezniak said.

“That’s where I love to play. Coming up through the grades at a young age you’d play anywhere in an NRL team.

“So fullback’s my preferred position, that’s where I want to play.

“Whatever happens I know it will be the best thing for the team and for the club, so I’ll just keep playing my football and see what happens.”

New Zealand coach Michael Maguire, who will coach NZ over three Tests against England starting this weekend, has been reportedly linked to the Tigers as a replacement for Cleary.

Wests CEO Justin Pascoe has visited Maguire last week in New Zealand to discuss the possibility of him coaching both the international team and the Tigers.

At a press conference in Leeds building up to the first Test match, Maguire revealed his focus is firmly on New Zealand.

“I’m only here to talk about the Kiwis,” Maguire said.

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