PENRITH have cleared the decks to make an aggressive play for the NRL’s top players next year.
The release of Michael Jennings from the final three years of his contract, as well as those of Michael Gordon and Luke Lewis to Cronulla, has left the rebuilding Panthers in prime position to poach the game’s biggest names for next year.
Headlined by Australian five-eighth Johnathan Thurston, the list of off-contract players includes Todd Carney, Feleti Mateo, Akuila Uate, Matt Scott, Jamie Soward, Mitchell Pearce and Robbie Farah.
Jennings, who is now ineligible for the NRL All Stars despite leading Panthers votes, will waltz into Sydney Roosters training for the first time on Wednesday morning after signing a four-year, $2 million deal.
But the Panthers’ decision to release Jennings from the $1.8 million contract for the next three years has freed a substantial amount in the club’s salary cap.
To lure Thurston, who is also on Canterbury’s radar, the Panthers would need to fork out close to $1million per season to entice the game’s premier halfback to the foot of the mountains.
General manager Phil Gould told Fairfax Media the club was now in a healthy position to enter the player market for next year following the deal. ‘‘We have to get through ’13 and ’14 and the plan is to recruit people who can do a job for us to keep us somewhat competitive, giving youngsters that we’ve recruited the opportunity to come into the top grade in ’14, ’15 and ’16,’’ Gould said.
‘‘And freeing up salary cap space so that we can go into the market place fairly aggressively for 2014, and that’s where I think our resurgence begins.
‘‘It’s a long time and it’s a game of perseverance. I totally understand fans getting frustrated with it, but I think if they stick with it for the long haul, they’ll see some good results.’’
Having been shopped around to at least half a dozen clubs, including St George Illawarra, Wests Tigers and South Sydney, Jennings has finally landed a new home after he was granted a release from Penrith on Tuesday afternoon.
The Roosters have been sweating since before Christmas on a deal to be struck between Jennings’ management and the Panthers, but negotiations to release the 24-year-old had been at loggerheads for several weeks.
They were resolved yesterday after the Panthers agreed to pay out close to $300,000 to Jennings to make up for the shortfall between contracts.
"For 2013 we’d already paid Michael for three months,’’ Gould said. ‘‘He’d been training in the off-season with us and we’ve made a contribution for this year just to pay the gap between his contract at the Roosters and what he would’ve earned at the Panthers. All of that will absorb in 2013 so effectively Michael’s contract in 2014 and ’15 will be out of the salary cap by that time.’’’
While the Roosters couldn’t match the $600,000 price tag he was on at the Panthers, they added another year to his contract to entice the international centre to the eastern suburbs.
‘‘The Roosters have a talented roster and I’m excited to have joined the team,’’ Jennings said.
‘‘I have met with Trent Robinson and am looking forward to getting to know my new teammates, getting stuck into training, working hard and playing alongside guys like Mitchell Pearce who I have already played with at Origin level.’’
Having been made ineligible for the All Stars game, Jennings is expected to play his first game for the Roosters in their trial against Manly at Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford on February 16.
All eyes will be on Jennings, as well as fellow high-profile Roosters recruits Sonny Bill Williams and James Maloney, when they open the season against arch enemy South Sydney on Thursday, March 7.
Jennings will line up against his former club for the first time at Allianz Stadium in round eight on May 5, before returning to Centrebet Stadium in round 21.