Uncertain future ... Jennings. Photo: Getty Images
NSW ORIGIN centre Michael Jennings has been told by Penrith that he is free to look for a new club as the ARL Commission prepares to reject the Panthers' application for a huge salary cap exemption.
As South Sydney became the latest team to be linked with Jennings, it also emerged that the ARLC was on the cusp of rejecting the submission filed by Penrith boss Phil Gould to alleviate the salary cap pressure on the club.
Uncertainty has clouded Jennings's future for weeks, but Penrith's intentions have now become clear. The result, the Herald has learnt, is that he has effectively been offered a release from his $600,000-a-season deal that runs until the end of 2015 and asked whether he could find another club.
Weighed down by salary cap constraints as a result of recruitment and retention decisions made before their arrival, Penrith coach Ivan Cleary and general manager Gould are endeavouring to give the Panthers some room to move in terms of their roster, and Jennings is the prime target.
One of the NRL's most exciting players when at the top of his game, Jennings - in the second season of a five-year contract - is regarded as too expensive given Penrith's salary cap predicament.
Getting rid of him, however, will be no simple exercise. Canterbury were reported at the weekend to have signalled an interest in Jennings - although officially they are denying any, having just signed Krisnan Inu - and there was speculation yesterday that South Sydney might be keen to add the left-side centre to their star-studded line-up.
But it is unlikely rival clubs will be willing to pay the 24-year-old the value of his current contract, meaning that even if he signed elsewhere, the Panthers would likely have to fork out a portion of his income themselves - and, crucially, have it still included in their salary cap.
Cleary would not comment at a Penrith recovery session yesterday, and Gould did not return calls.
Relatively new arrivals at the Panthers, they have taken over with the books in disarray in terms of player payments, with back-ended deals crippling their recruitment strategy. Half of Penrith's salary cap for 2014 is reportedly taken up by only five players - Jennings, Luke Lewis, Lachlan Coote, Sam McKendry and Tim Grant.
Gould has taken the issue to ARLC chief executive David Gallop in an effort to gain some relief but the indications last night were the Panthers will not be given special assistance. The commission appears intent on not providing cap favours for one team, knowing that the other 15 would likely claim unfairness.
''The Panthers have provided us with a submission,'' Gallop said. ''It's not appropriate to go into the details but it goes without saying that salary-cap exemptions or concessions for one club and not others is a difficult hurdle to jump.
''There has to be consideration for the equality of the 16 clubs and their salary caps.''
Jennings was suspended for Penrith's 22-4 win over Manly on Sunday after throwing a wild punch at Brent Tate that earned him a sin-binning during the first State of Origin match last Wednesday in Melbourne. Due to representative commitments, he has not appeared in first grade since being demoted to NSW Cup feeder side Windsor Wolves by Cleary earlier this month for drinking while injured on Anzac Day.
It is understood that was Jennings's third disciplinary breach, and while the club declined to note it as an official transgression - knowing that disciplining a player for having a beer on Anzac Day would be a bad look - they could terminate his contract as a result. The difficulty of ripping up contracts, though, and the likelihood of subsequent legal action from the sacked player, makes this a last-resort option for Penrith.