St George Illawarra chief executive Peter Doust has not ruled out the return of 2010 premiership coach Wayne Bennett next season.
On Thursday morning, the club denied already making an approach to Bennett, who announced he would not see out the final year of his contract in Newcastle next season.
However, in a statement Doust was keeping his options open as they pursue a long-term replacement after sacking Steve Price earlier this year.
“At the time of announcing Paul McGregor as caretaker coach of the Dragons at the end of May, we also advised that we would be undertaking a detailed process to identify a head coach for next season and beyond,’’ Doust said.
“We don’t believe it appropriate to speculate on our progress or the candidates. This process is ongoing and yet to be finalised, once a decision is made we will communicate accordingly”.
Bennett has been linked to a return to Wollongong, three years after he took over the Knights.
The 64-year-old announced on Thursday he will quit the Newcastle Knights at the end of the season.
"First and foremost, I am not comfortable with the performance of the team over the three years and I take full responsibility for that," Bennett told the Newcastle Knights website, which also reported he planned to continue coaching at another club.
“While we have been faced with many challenges, the club is heading in the right direction ... I believe it will take a number of years to reach an acceptable position and that is what I am unable to commit to. A longer term coach is crucial for future success.”
Bennett had been signed to the Knights until the end of the 2015 season, however after the collapse of Nathan Tinkler’s ownership his contract was up for re-negotiation.
Bennett has also been linked to a move back to Brisbane to coach the Broncos, where he won seven premierships, including the Super League title in 1997.
Wherever Bennett ends up he will leave Newcastle with the Knights having not fulfilled the lofty ambitions the club was pinned with as a result of the Tinkler takeover.
They came within only a game of a grand final appearance last season, but dreams of a premiership came crashing back to earth this year with Newcastle in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
Little has gone the way of Bennett’s side in a forgettable campaign which has influenced his decision to part ways with the club.
Between the jailing of front-rower Russell Packer, the tragic injury suffered by Alex McKinnon and the uncertainty and turmoil surrounding the breakdown of Tinkler’s reign it has truly been a season from hell.
Bennett’s announcement comes only two days after NRL chief executive Dave Smith said he hoped the 64-year-old would stay in Newcastle to help see them out of the tumultuous Tinkler period.
The NRL took over ownership from Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group last month but and there was uncertainty over whether any new contract offered to him could match the reported $1 million a season he was earning with the former mining magnate in charge.
While the full-time vacancy at the Dragons makes a return there the obvious next step for Bennett, there will be undoubted nervousness in coaching circles around the NRL with the game’s most revered taskmaster on the open market.
The other option for Bennett would be to retire as a coach.