Parramatta Eels have signalled their intention to pursue Luke Lewis as a potential replacement for skipper Nathan Hindmarsh - and they have the money to do so.
Cronulla and St George Illawarra have been mentioned as potential homes for Lewis from next season, but Parramatta chief executive Bob Bentley last night confirmed the Eels had the cash and the interest to lure Lewis to the club.
The Penrith general manager, Phil Gould, yesterday denied the Panthers had forced him out of the club to ease some of the financial burden his $500,000-a-year contract had on the salary cap. The Sydney Morning Herald understands Penrith, who won't have to pay Lewis or his future club a cent when he leaves, receive a $200,000 salary cap exemption for the 28-year-old as part of the NRL's long-serving player allowance and therefore will only have $300,000 for a replacement.
Lewis, who has been granted a release from his contract which expires at the end of 2014, has been unhappy at the Panthers for some time and yesterday admitted he needed ''a whole new change of life''.
He even met with Gould in Origin camp ahead of game two to discuss his future and the possibility of calling quits on his rugby league career.
''There was a conversation we had just before Origin II when he wanted to retire, which is a conversation I've had with a number of footballers over the years at his age,'' Gould said. ''But we quickly dispelled that one and realised he had a lot of football left in him and wherever he goes he'll give great service. And as I've said, when he's finished his playing days, he's always welcome back here - there's a job for him.''
Hindmarsh's pending retirement will leave a gaping hole in Parramatta's leadership ranks, which only adds to the appeal of attracting the 28-year-old to the Eels at the end of the year. ''It's definitely an area he can help us,'' Bentley said. ''If you lose someone with 300 games, like Hindy's got, and get someone of a Luke Lewis person, who's got 200-odd games up and State of Origin and Australian representation, it definitely fills a gap for you.''
The retirement of Hindmarsh and Luke Burt, Shane Shackleton's mid-season transfer to the Panthers, as well as the expected shedding of prop Justin Poore, will release some funds in the cap for the Eels, who have snared Manly's Darcy Lussick and Daniel Harrison for 2013.
Parramatta managed to entice several high-profile players to the club this year, some of whom are on back-ended deals that may affect the type of money the Eels can throw at Lewis. While it's likely Lewis will have to take a pay cut next year, regardless of which club he decides to join, Bentley believes Parramatta have the available funds to lure him from their neighbours.
''Given that we've missed out on a couple of recent signings, we'd be certainly interested in a guy of his calibre,'' Bentley said. ''He's a State of Origin and Test player - those guys don't come on the market too often.''
Lewis is building a house in Orchard Hills, just 25 minutes from Parramatta, and it may be a factor in his decision.
The Dragons, along with the Sharks, are believed to be two of the frontrunners for Lewis' signature, but both clubs refused to elaborate on their interest in the 2003 premiership-winner.
''There are always rumours and speculation surrounding external players being linked to our club,'' the St George Illawarra chief executive, Peter Doust, said. ''The Dragons are always interested in quality players but it is not in the best interests for me to be making specific remarks relating to recruitment.''
Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan said the Sharks would consider an approach to Lewis, who played alongside captain Paul Gallen and five-eighth Todd Carney in the NSW Origin team.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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