Tim Lafai was given the grand tour of Penrith's facilities on Tuesday. So too Peta Hiku. Both were earmarked as potential replacements for Jamal Idris, but it was Hiku who signed on the dotted line first.
Hiku, unwanted by Manly after returning from Test duty with New Zealand, is a Panther after signing a three-year deal worth over $1 million. Like Lafai, the utility back had been courted by Parramatta and St George Illawarra, who increased their offer to a third year to match that at Penrith. But Hiku's negotiations with prospective clubs were more advanced than Lafai's and after meeting with club supremo Phil Gould and coach Anthony Griffin, Hiku gave the pair the news they wanted at midday on Wednesday.
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Given his recent international commitments, Hiku isn't expected to officially start pre-season training until early January. Lafai, who spent Wednesday on the Gold Coast with his partner deciding whether joining the Titans are for them, is expected to meet with fellow suitors Parramatta and St George Illawarra in coming days. The Warriors are another option for the Samoan international.
The other piece in the centre merry-go-round - that has already seen Will Hopoate and Dylan Walker released from their contracts to join Canterbury and Manly respectively - is James Roberts. The Dally M centre of the year is in high demand after the Titans were unable to salvage the relationship following the club's contract forgery scandal. Already Brisbane, South Sydney, Parramatta, St George Illawarra, and Cronulla have expressed interest and it's believed he could command up to $500,000 per season after a breakout year. While there are whispers a deal with the Broncos is a fait accompli, the fact Roberts has only just come onto the market - coupled with a recent change of management - suggests a deal with any club is still some time away.
Roberts' agent, Jeremy Donovan, has revealed the 22-year-old has an ambition to play at fullback, an opportunity that could potentially come at the Dragons or Eels. Josh Dugan has indicated his preference to play in the centres, although a decision will be determined by the Red V's success in the player market.
St George Illawarra halfback Benji Marshall threw his support behind his club's chase of Roberts. His uncle, Amos, made his NRL debut at the joint-venture outfit, playing 65 games before stints with Penrith and the Roosters.
"I don't think there would be a team who wouldn't want to have him," said Marshall, who was on hand to deliver the NRL's wellbeing blitz at Holy Cross Helensburgh on Wednesday. "From my point of view, I don't really care about the players who come in or not. That's up to Mary [coach Paul McGregor], who he wants in the team. I'm really happy with the depth and quality with the outside backs we have at the moment. Peter Mata'utia judging by his pre-season has gone to another level. If someone like James or someone does come we would gladly welcome them in."
Treading water: Gold Coast Titans outside back James Roberts is now a free agent. Photo: Brendan Esposito
The Panthers have finished shopping after completing a recruitment drive that has netted Hiku, Trent Merrin, Te Maire Martin, Zach Dockar-Clay, Benjamin Garcia, Andrew Heffernan, Viliame Kikau, Sitaleki Akauola and Suaia Matagi.
"The Panthers are delighted to secure the services of such a well-credentialed representative class player as Peta Hiku," Gould said. "We are indeed fortunate that Peta became available at this stage of the year. He will perfectly complement the emerging young players we have here at Panthers. The fact that Peta, at a young age, has forced his way into that tremendous Manly backline and has performed so well on the international stage for the Kiwis is indicative of his tremendous ability.
"At 23 years of age he obviously has the best of his career in front of him and we are excited he is going to be a Panther for the next three years."