Newcastle Knights hunting for Jeremy Smith

THE Knights are in the hunt for Sharks and premiership-winning former Dragons enforcer Jeremy Smith, two years after first trying to lure him to Newcastle.

For that to happen, Cronulla would have to agree to release the 32-year-old New Zealand Test tough nut from the final year of the three-year deal he signed in 2010, when they beat the Knights in the race for his signature.

Such a development would free up salary cap space for the Sharks to offer disillusioned former Penrith skipper Luke Lewis a lucrative three-year deal.

On both fronts, that would all but rule the Knights out of the race for Lewis, who announced last week that he would leave the Panthers at the end of the season.

The Knights are poised to re-sign second-rower Chris Houston to a two-year deal this week, are well advanced in negotiations to retain rejuvenated pack leader Willie Mason for another two years, and announced in March that they had signed Dragons, NSW and Australian back-rower Beau Scott for the next four years.

The Knights announced on Friday that they would release utility back Wes Naiqama from the final two years of his three-year contract, allowing him to sign a two-year deal with Penrith, but Newcastle will still reportedly be paying $80,000 a year towards his contract with the Panthers.

There was discussion on Sky Sports Radio yesterday morning that Newcastle’s interest in signing Smith for next year was a hot topic of conversation in owner Nathan Tinkler’s corporate suite during the Knights’ 32-6 victory over Manly at Hunter Stadium on Saturday night.

The general sentiment from those in Tinkler’s box was that Smith joining the Knights was ‘‘a done deal’’, but the Newcastle Herald was told yesterday that there were still some hurdles to clear.

The Knights’ policy is to not comment on issues pertaining to recruitment or retention.

When he was coaching St George Illawarra, Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett recruited Smith from Melbourne at the end of 2008.

Smith played in Melbourne’s grand final-winning team in 2007 (the NRL later stripped them of that title) and in their grand final losses to Brisbane (2006) and Manly (2008).

He was a key figure in Bennett’s premiership-winning Dragons team in 2010, the same year the Knights first tried to sign him, and has been one of Cronulla’s most consistent performers for the past 18 months.

Former Knights coach Rick Stone, whose association with Smith stretched back to the Queensland Cup in the early years of last decade, was confident of signing him to a three-year deal starting last year but he eventually settled on a three-year contract with Cronulla so he could continue to live in Wollongong.

There was speculation last week that the Sharks were considering releasing Smith to rejoin the Dragons, but Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan told the Illawarra Mercury last Thursday: ‘‘One hundred per cent – Jeremy Smith will not be going to the Dragons’’.

‘‘Consistently, he’s been our best player, he’s on contract until next year – I’d have to have rocks in my head,’’ Flanagan said. ‘‘It’s absolutely ludicrous that we would let him go.’’

It was reported in the Sun-Herald yesterday that Smith was dealing with some personal issues, but Flanagan again denied that he had asked for a release.

‘‘I’ve got a thousand inquiries about it but I don’t know where it all started,’’ he said.

‘‘He’s said he’s got a few things going on at home, which we won’t go into ... but he definitely hasn’t asked for a release.’’

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