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Behind the NRL's off-season game of musical chairs with Peta Hiku and Tim Lafai next to go

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Parramatta, Penrith, St George Illawarra and Gold Coast are locked in a four-way battle for the services of star centres Peta Hiku and Tim Lafai before the off-season game of musical chairs comes to a halt.

South Sydney are also in the market for a centre to replace Manly-bound Dylan Walker but it is unlikely they could afford Hiku or Lafai as the Rabbitohs still need to shift a player - likely to be Chris McQueen - to accommodate Sam Burgess under their salary cap for next season.

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The earlier-than-expected return of Burgess from English rugby union and a contract dispute between Will Hopoate and the Eels has started a domino effect, which has seen Souths, Manly and Canterbury needing to release players in order to sign others.

Contracts for Burgess and Walker have yet to be registered by the NRL, while the Bulldogs only announced the signing of Hopoate after releasing Lafai over the weekend.

Waiting in the wings are the Dragons, Panthers and Titans, who have money to spend after undergoing a large turnover of players during the off-season in a bid to restructure their rosters. Titans utility James Roberts has become the latest name on that list after requesting and being granted a release from the club on Monday night.

Penrith are on the look-out for a centre after releasing Jamal Idris last month when the former NSW Origin star told new coach Anthony Griffin he was considering his playing future and wanted to take time out from the NRL.


St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor is also preparing for the anticipated retirement of 24-year-old centre Dylan Farrell due to ongoing back problems and is looking at Lafai as a direct replacement or signing Hiku and shifting Josh Dugan from fullback.

If the Dragons fail to snare Lafai or Hiku, McGregor has Euan Aitken, Peter Mata'utai and Kurt Mann as centre options, or he could play Dugan there and Mann or Adam Quinlan at fullback.   

Hiku toured the Dragons training facilities last week but only Parramatta and Penrith are believed to have so far tabled an offer for the New Zealand international, who has been told by new Manly coach Trent Barrett that he is free to leave if he finds another club.

Eels coach Brad Arthur, who worked with Hiku during his 12-months at the Sea Eagles as an assistant to Geoff Toovey in 2013, is eyeing him as a replacement for Hopoate and former Manly teammates Kieran Foran, Anthony Watmough and James Hasson have been urging him to join them at Parramatta.

Unsigned: Bulldogs centre Tim Lafai.

Unsigned: Bulldogs centre Tim Lafai. Photo: Getty Images

Gold Coast have also expressed an interest in Hiku and are also keen to secure the services of McQueen but their priority is retaining star centre James Roberts after it was discovered that a Titans staff member had faked his signature on a contract.

It remains unclear if Roberts is a free agent because of the contract bungle but the former Rabbitohs and Panthers centre has indicated he wants to remain on the Gold Coast and officials are working through the details of a new deal.

The Titans have also been linked to Lafai, along with the Eels, Panthers and Dragons, following the retirement of Kevin Gordon and Brad Tighe.

Gold Coast have also lost Nate Myles (Manly), Dave Taylor (Catalans), Aidan Sezer (Canberra) and Beau Falloon (Leeds), but have signed Nathan Friend (Warriors), Tyrone Roberts (Newcastle), David Shillington (Canberra) and Zeb Taia (Catalans).