ALL but a select group of Knights are playing for their futures as coach Wayne Bennett explores all avenues to resuscitate their flatlining season while rebuilding for the future.
The Newcastle Herald has been told almost every player off contract at the end of this season, and several others signed until the end of next year or 2014, were free to look elsewhere in the wake of Newcastle’s five-game losing streak.
Speaking on ABC Radio on the weekend, Canberra CEO Don Furner said: ‘‘We’ve been offered probably 15 to 20 players ... [including] quite a few from Newcastle. Some are talking about trying to move before June 30 this year.’’
The climate of uncertainty threatens to undermine the rest of the season as the Knights, 14th on the ladder with just four wins from 13 games, face the almost impossible task of having to win at least nine of of their last 11 games to make the top eight.
In related developments:
? Knights chairman and former premiership-winning captain Paul Harragon told Newcastle radio station KO-FM yesterday that Bennett had put all players ‘‘on notice’’; and
? Stand-in skipper Danny Buderus tells Rugby League Week magazine today that it is up to off-contract players, not him, to communicate directly with Bennett about where they stand in the retention pecking order.
‘‘I think players need to go and take a bit of onus for themselves and their form and get in and see the coach and see what they have to do,” Buderus told the magazine when asked to address speculation that, as captain, he should be doing more to voice their concerns.
The Knights’ policy is to not comment on player recruitment or retention. But in an interview yesterday with KO-FM’s David Collins and Tanya Wilks, when asked about the prospects of another roster overhaul, Harragon said Bennett had warned all players that their performances were under review.
‘‘I think you’ll find it with a lot of coaches. Even Ivan Cleary’s doing the same thing [at Penrith],’’ Harragon said. ‘‘You get to the point where you work with blokes, you do this, you do that, and the final result is, ‘Hey guys, everyone’s on notice. If you’re not coming my way ...’
‘‘He [Cleary] has had to drop all his senior players.
‘‘Wayne’s gone in the same direction, just saying, ‘You guys are all on notice, this is the way we’ve got to go, come online and let’s do it.’
‘‘Look, tough times, it will just take a little while ... but I guarantee you – success, it’s there.
‘‘I can feel it, and I’ve been around for a long, long time.
‘‘I have no worries, and in fact I’m actually enjoying the tough time. I am.
‘‘It will make us better.’’
International front-rowers Richie Fa’aoso and Evarn Tuimavave are off contract at the end of the year and the Herald has been told the Knights are not interested in retaining either player. Fa’aoso told the Herald last week that he was resigned to leaving, although he wanted to stay.
The 28-year-old prop, who has played 99 games for the Knights, is considering two-year offers from two Sydney NRL clubs and Japanese rugby union club Panasonic Wild Knights, and was open-minded about the idea of leaving before the June 30 transfer deadline.
Utility forward Matt Hilder, who has signed until the end of next year, is reportedly under pressure to see out his contract but a Knights source said this was not the case.
Hilder is understood to be on Penrith’s radar, though the Panthers’ acquisition last week of Cowboys sparkplug James Segeyaro could have an impact on that.
Fijian Test captain Wes Naiqama is in the first year of a new three-year contract and fellow international centre Junior Sa’u is contracted until the end of next year, having signed a two-year extension last season.
But as the Herald revealed on June 9, other NRL clubs have been approached about the prospect of acquiring either player – before June 30 if feasible.
Naiqama and Sa’u were dropped to Newcastle’s NSW Cup squad this month.
Negotiations with Joel Edwards, a free agent at the end of this season, are on hold.
Zeb Taia has already signed with French-based Super League club Catalans Dragons.
Off-contract second-tier players including Kevin Naiqama, Marvin Filipo, Zane Tetevano, Siuatonga Likiliki and Kyle O’Donnell have permission to test the market.
The Knights are still trying to bolster their underperforming squad this year and have been linked to out-of-favour Parramatta and former NSW prop Justin Poore, who is off contract this year but is being shopped around in the hope of a pre-June 30 release.
Any chance of Poore joining the Knights this season would hinge on them offloading a player like Fa’aoso or Tuimavave, or possibly both, due to the salary-cap implications.
Neither Fa’aoso nor Tuimavave were named yesterday in the team to play Wests Tigers at Hunter Stadium on Monday, as Bennett instead included Tetevano on a five-man bench.
Forwards Chris Houston and Willie Mason remain unsigned beyond this year but have been two of the team’s most consistent performers and the Knights hope to retain them.
Captain Kurt Gidley and international recruits Darius Boyd and Kade Snowden, who have all signed until the end of 2015, are off limits.
The only player contracted beyond them is Dragons back-rower Beau Scott, who has signed a four-year deal starting next season.
NSW and Australian winger Aku Uate, contracted until the end of next year, and Buderus, who signed a one-year extension last week, are safe.
Others in that category include Dane Gagai, Alex McKinnon, Adam Cuthbertson, Jarrod Mullen and James McManus.
McKinnon and Cuthbertson signed until the end of 2014 when they followed Bennett from the Dragons at the end of last year.
Gagai joined the Knights from the Broncos last month and has signed until the end of 2014.
Mullen is signed until the end of 2014 and, despite his mixed form and the team’s inconsistent performances this season, it is understood Bennett wants to continue working with him alongside a healthy Gidley next year.
Tyrone Roberts, who has deputised at halfback since Gidley suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on April 30, is secure after signing a new two-year deal eight weeks ago.
Harragon was concerned that the effort Knights supporters had come to expect from their players in the club’s 25-year history had been lacking.
‘‘The last couple of games, people are seeing for the first time, that effort’s not there. What we’re used to has been lacking, and it’s disappointing ...’’ Harragon told KO-FM.
‘‘The way forward for the club is to look critically on ourselves, make changes, do whatever we’ve got to do to find what’s wrong and plough on.
‘‘It will come around, like everything.
‘‘It goes in cycles.’’