Panthers' Lewis seeking fresh NRL challenge

MOVING ON: Second-rower Luke Lewis has been released from the final two years on his contract at Penrith.
MOVING ON: Second-rower Luke Lewis has been released from the final two years on his contract at Penrith.

It was while preparing for last month's second State of Origin clash that Luke Lewis decided he had to end his 17-year association with Penrith.

Frustrated with the club battling once again at the wrong end of the NRL ladder, Lewis was still angry at being stripped of the captaincy by coach Ivan Cleary.

He was also unhappy that the club was doing little to douse speculation his close friend and NSW teammate Michael Jennings was being shopped around to other teams after being dumped to reserve grade by Cleary.

Such was the disillusionment, Lewis not only wanted to be away from the club he joined as an 11-year-old, he was even contemplating waking away from the sport for good.

The Kangaroos back-rower, who made his NRL debut in 2001, is the highest earning player at the Panthers, who are crippled by a salary cap that is hampering their attempts to rebuild.

However, general manager Phil Gould, who agreed to Lewis's request to be released from the final two years of his contract, denied the 28-year-old was being shipped out to ease the club's salary cap woes.

"No one here at Panthers has ever suggested or initiated a plan to remove Luke from the club prior to the expiry of his current contract," Gould said at a media conference at Centrebet Stadium on Monday.

"Luke doesn't want to go through the pain of a club rebuilding and his goals don't marry up with ours. He wants to play at a club with a chance of winning a premiership.

"Because he is a long-serving player we get a heavy discount on the salary cap. It most certainly wasn't a salary cap decision."

Lewis, who said at the start of the season being named as captain was the highlight of his career, admitted his decision to move was tough, but one he had to make.

"Personally I need something different," he said.

"For me and the club it's best we part ways."

Gould revealed Lewis's mind was in turmoil when he met him at the NSW team hotel in Sydney last month and the issue of retirement was brought up.

"It's a conversation I've had with a number of footballers at a similar age," Gould said of the man who has played 200-plus NRL games.

"We quickly dispelled that one and decided he has plenty of football still in him."

Lewis denied he was genuinely serious about hanging up his boots, but said the chat with Gould helped clear his thoughts and decide his future.

"It's where my headspace was at the time and where my life was going," he said.

"It's something I mentioned to Gus. He just came out and tried to clear my head.

"He did that and I've been in a good frame of mind over the last couple of weeks. The good thing is that it helped me come to this decision."

Lewis denied reports he'd already spoken to St George Illawarra or Cronulla and said he had no idea where he would be playing in 2013.

Gould said he would be given a huge farewell at his final home game against the Gold Coast in round 25.

"He's a role model for all kids in western Sydney, He will always be a member of the Panther family."