Unknown element ... the future of star centre Michael Jennings is up in the air. Photo: Edwina Pickles
PENRITH officials have asked the ARL Commission for massive salary cap relief to ensure they don't become a weak link in the battle with AFL for western Sydney.
The revelation comes amid speculation about the future of star centre Michael Jennings and it is understood that one of the key concessions the Panthers are seeking is that payments to players released to other clubs not be included in the salary cap.
Jennings, who was selected from NSW Cup to play for the Blues in Origin I, has been linked with a number of rival clubs and the Herald has been told that he had been advised Penrith would be willing to release him.
Give us some muscle ... Jennings is believed to be on a $600,000 per season deal at the Panthers. Photo: Edwina Pickles
However, it is unlikely that rival clubs could match his current $600,000 per season deal and the Panthers would have to make a significant contribution to any contract he signed elsewhere. Under NRL salary cap rules, the amount that Penrith paid would be included in the Panthers salary cap but the club has asked the ARLC for exemptions for any top up payments to players released from their contracts.
The Herald understands that Penrith's application is set to be rejected by the ARLC but Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said yesterday that he club needed the special salary cap treatment to ensure they remain strong in the battle for western Sydney.
''Really, we're just another club but clearly we're trying to improve [and] there's no doubt there's a threat with another code out in these parts,'' Cleary said. ''I think really we need some help to be able to fight the fight. In saying that our club has put itself in the position that it's in. We're just trying to improve that position, that's all.''
With Jennings and Penrith's other four highest-paid players Luke Lewis, Lachlan Coote, Sam McKendry and Tim Grant reportedly taking up half of Penrith's 2014 salary cap due to back-ended contracts, the club is unable to recruit unless they shed some of their stars.
Former NSW Origin winger Michael Gordon has signed with Cronulla because the Panthers were unable to make him a comparable offer and they could not afford to sign Sharks five-eighth Wade Graham and Parramatta forward Ben Smith.
Penrith have also reached the limit of their $350,000 second-tier salary cap after using 29 players so far this season and cannot now play boom teenager Harry Siejka or other members of their under-20s team in the NRL.
The Herald understands that Penrith supremo Phil Gould outlined to ARLC chief executive David Gallop why giving the club salary cap relief would help to combat the push of AFL into western Sydney when he attended the Panthers' round-nine match against Melbourne.
However, the ARLC is expected to reject the submission as it does not want to be seen to be providing special treatment for one club over the other 15.
Meanwhile, Gordon, who recently signed a three-year deal to join Cronulla from next season, had a screw taken out of his leg on Monday and could be back by as early as round 16.
While Gordon wants to finish the year at Penrith, there's a possibility he may return this year for Cronulla.
But his manager Andrew Purcell last night told the Herald that Penrith had given no indication they would let Gordon go mid-season.
Unless Penrith have a change of heart between now and June 30, Gordon will see out the season at the foot of the mountains.