Chuffed Chook … Michael Jennings wears a smile and a new Roosters shirt at Bondi Junction on Wednesday. Photo: James Brickwood
IVAN CLEARY did not try to sugar-coat the break-up between Penrith and Michael Jennings, backing his club's decision to release the NSW centre from the final three years of his contract.
As Jennings reported for duty at his new club on Wednesday morning, his former coach, who was 50 metres away in a meeting at Rugby League Central, declared Jennings was not justifying his $600,000-a-season contract at the the Panthers.
''It's something that's been brewing for quite a while,'' Cleary said. ''It's a good outcome for both parties. The bottom line is when your highest-paid asset is not giving you the returns you need, then something has got to give.''
The Penrith coach's comments came just an hour after Jennings was spotted leaving Roosters headquarters donning a club polo shirt and a smile not seen since the 24-year-old earned a shock selection in the NSW Origin side after Cleary dumped him to the reserve grade last year.
Cleary and Penrith general manager Phil Gould are trying to rebuild the club after the previous management invested huge amounts in players who are no longer at the foot of the mountains.
Former Panthers and now Warriors coach Matthew Elliott, who was at the helm when Luke Lewis and Jennings signed multimillion-dollar deals to remain at their junior club, took no responsibility for those decisions.
''I think the decisions that Ivan's talking about were made above me,'' Elliott said.
Having already signed Sonny Bill Williams and James Maloney on lucrative deals, questions have been asked of how the Roosters could fit Jennings under their salary cap. Coach Trent Robinson erased any concern that the club would experience a similar predicament as the Panthers, confident they can remain competitive in the player market in the coming years despite their recent big signings.
Top on the club's list of priorities is ensuring halfback Mitchell Pearce, whom Robinson views as the cornerstone of the club's future, remains a Rooster beyond the end of his contract this year.
''I think I made it clear when I came back how keen I was to coach Mitch and the importance of Mitch as a player at the Roosters,'' Robinson said. ''I think he's the next one we'd like to sign up … We've been sensible with the money we've signed these players [Jennings, Williams and Maloney] on. We've got a medium- and long-term plan with our recruitment and we're fairly well measured on what we've signed these players to and the scope for the future ,too.''
Williams, who is recovering from a pectoral injury, will return to the Roosters on February 11, three days after his boxing bout with Frans Botha in Brisbane.
Robinson is still weighing up whether to play the 27-year-old in a trial match before the season opener against South Sydney on March 7. He will wait until he sees the dual international in action before deciding.
''The assessment on where his injury is at after the fight - I need to see him train first, the way he's going to run and adapt to the new structures, and then I'll make an assessment on most probably the second trial, which will be the 23rd of February against the Tigers,'' he said.
While Robinson is tinkering with the idea of playing Williams at lock, he is likely to use him as a left-edge back-rower, where he spent most of his time when at the Bulldogs.
Robinson conceded the additions of Williams, Jennings and Maloney had added pressure on the club to perform but believes he has instilled the right qualities to ensure the Roosters finish on the top half of the ladder.
''We're trying to improve things, and we need to improve over the next couple of years,'' he said.