Canberra are preparing to make audacious plays for Parramatta's Junior Paulo and Wests Tigers' Martin Taupau should the powerful forwards come onto the open market.
Paulo and Taupau are signed to their respective clubs until the end of next season but it is understood both are considering requesting early releases to continue their careers elsewhere. The Eels and Tigers want to keep their respective stars and have been in negotiations to upgrade and extend their contracts. However, both clubs are under salary cap pressure and the pair could potentially earn considerably more on the open market.
Even if they don't come to terms on extensions – Taupau has already rejected an offer to extend his stay at the joint-venture outfit – both players will have to stay put should the holding clubs ask them to see out the final year of their current commitments.
Taupau has gone from a fringe first-grader to a bona fide star since shifting from Canterbury to the Tigers, resulting in selection for the New Zealand Test side. Paulo is also an enforcer on the rise. The former Australian Schoolboy is 21, but has played for NSW at NYC level and could become a contender for senior State of Origin honours next season if he continues his rapid improvement.
Parramatta powerbrokers are aware of the interest from the Green Machine but are hoping Paulo will be a long-term player for the blue and golds. "I've spoken to Junior about upgrading and extending him out," said Eels coach Brad Arthur. "He's given every indication that's what he wants to do."
Taupau has raised the prospect of attempting to follow Jarryd Hayne to the NFL, but his priority is to remain in rugby league. The Raiders join Manly, South Sydney and the Gold Coast as clubs ready to pounce should the 25-year-old become a free agent. "Martin is a contracted player with Wests Tigers for the 2016 NRL season," said Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe. "He hasn't approached the club for a release and we expect to see him return to training following New Zealand's tour of the UK."
Taupau's future, and that of several other players, could hinge on whether the Tigers offload out-of-favour captain Robbie Farah. The Tigers are in talks with Sea Eagles rake Matt Ballin, which could result in a swap for Taupau. However, that may be contingent on whether Farah finds a new home or digs his heels in for the final two years of his $950,000-per season contract. The NSW dummy half has been threatened with the prospect of languishing in the NSW Cup if he doesn't move on. But in a separate interview, with Sky Sports Radio, Pascoe said Farah wouldn't automatically be dropped to reserve grade should he remain with the Tigers next year.
"Robbie, like any other player, will be assessed on his merit and what's in the best interest of the team at that particular time," Pascoe said. "I've also got to stress that no player, including Robbie, is permanently prohibited from playing first grade at any stage, just like no player is guaranteed of playing first grade."
The Raiders have already been active in the player market, signing Titans half Aidan Sezer, Newcastle hooker Adam Clydesdale and England international Elliot Whitehead for 2016. However, they still have money to spend after releasing a number of players, including David Shillington (Titans), Joel Edwards (Tigers), Mitch Cornish (Parramatta) and Josh McCrone (Dragons) in the off-season.
Heading their recruitment charge will be Peter Mullholland, who switched from the Dragons to replace David Hamilton.
"David Hamilton gave our club 17 years of wonderful service and helped us develop and recruit a number of NRL talented players who have gone on to achieve high levels in the sport," Raiders CEO Don Furner said. "Peter has fantastic experience in the NRL and in particular country and regional areas."
In other signing news, South Sydney confirmed the addition of Damien Cook to their roster. As revealed by Fairfax Media last month, the Bulldogs hooker will be a contender for the No.9 jersey vacated by Issac Luke's shift to the Warriors. And Eels fullback Reece Robinson has switched codes and signed with the Waratahs.