CATALAN Dragons coach Trent Robinson said last night that Zeb Taia could be the man to transform his club from Super League contenders into champions after swooping on the discarded Knights forward.
As revealed in the Newcastle Herald, Taia was told last week that the Knights were unlikely to make an offer to retain him, citing salary-cap pressure.
Yesterday he became the first Knights player in 2012 to announce he would be parting company with the club at season’s end, having secured a three-year deal with Catalans.
Robinson, who served his coaching apprenticeship under Brian Smith at Newcastle between 2007 and 2009, said Taia would be an ‘‘outstanding asset’’ for his club, on and off the field.
‘‘We’re really happy to sign Zeb. He’s going to add great value to our team,’’ Robinson told the Herald.
‘‘The big four teams in the Super League [Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Bradford] have been dominant for a long time because of the advantages they hold over the other teams, financially and in terms of junior development.
‘‘It’s not like the NRL, which is more of a level playing field.
‘‘So the big question is which team can come from outside the top four and have a crack at actually winning it.
‘‘We think we’re building towards that. We’ve shown we can beat any team, home or away, we just need to do it now at the right stage of the season.
‘‘If we don’t win a grand final this season, hopefully we’ll be ready to do it next year. And that’s why we’ve brought Zeb here. We see him as a player who can help us take that next step.’’
Catalans claimed the bottom rung in the six-team play-offs last season but were eliminated 44-0 by Wigan at the first hurdle.
This season the Perpignan-based outfit are fourth after 12 games.
Taia’s signing, as replacement for rugby union convert Setaimata Sa, is a coup for Catalans, given that he is in the prime of his career.
Since joining the Knights from Parramatta midway through the 2007 season, the 27-year-old back-rower has racked up 88 NRL games and represented New Zealand.
According to Sportsdata’s Contribution Value Rating statistics, used by NRL coaches to evaluate players, Taia has been Newcastle’s second-best player this season, behind acting skipper Chris Houston.
Taia’s statistics have consistently been superior throughout his career than the man signed to replace him, St George Illawarra’s Beau Scott.
‘‘When I came here last year we made a conscious decision as a club to move away from signing players in that 30-plus age bracket,’’ Robinson said.
‘‘Steve Menzies was an exception, and he’s been great for our club, but other than him we’ve brought in guys like Scott Dureau, Ian Henderson, Louis Anderson and Darryl Millard, who are all in their mid-20s.
‘‘Zeb is still only 27 and from watching him play this season I know he’s in great form.
‘‘It’s exciting to have a player of his quality coming to this club. I’m sure he’ll play a big role in our progression.’’
Taia is unlikely to be the only Newcastle player released at the end of this season.
The club’s list of free agents includes veterans Danny Buderus and Willie Mason, seasoned first-graders Evarn Tuimavave and Richie Fa’aoso, home-grown tyro Joel Edwards and fringe players Chris Adams, Marvin Filipo, Siuatonga Likiliki, Kyle O’Donnell and Kevin Naqiama.
Contract talks have apparently been put on hold while coach Wayne Bennett evaluates which players to release or re-sign.
Taia’s manager, John Frare, said last week his client was ‘‘devastated’’ about having to leave Newcastle.
But he said there were a couple of ‘‘huge’’ offers from Super League clubs and also interest within the NRL.
Taia said in a club statement that the offer from Catalans was ‘‘too good to refuse’’.
“For now, I have another goal to achieve and that is to play 100 games for the Knights, and to play finals footy with the boys,” he said.