Newcastle Rugby League players’ player Willie Heta has signed with the Orange Hawks in a blow to Souths’ premiership defence.
New Souths coach Ben Cross confirmed on Tuesday that Heta was moving to Orange to take up a two-year captain-coach role with the Hawks after one season at Townson Oval.
Heta’s departure will be a double blow for Newcastle sport as his fiancee, Waratah Basketball League all-star guard Sophie Kleeman, will go with him and miss the Hunters’ title defence in 2017.
Five-eighth Heta was voted players’ player in the NRL this year and was the competition’s leading pointscorer with 138 from eight tries and 53 goals.
The 30-year-old was instrumental in Souths’ 21-12 grand final win over Macquarie in September, setting up two tries then scoring himself in the second half.
Cross said he was disappointed to lose “probably the best player in the competition” but there was no bad blood between the club and Heta.
“It’s a bit of a lifestyle change. An opportunity for a captain-coach’s role came up out there,” Cross said. “He secured a work opportunity as well for himself.”
Heta had re-signed with Souths after the grand final, and Cross said the Lions were still negotiating with the Hawks about how they would be compensated.
“There’s still a few things to be finalised in the release before it’s all done and dusted,” he said.
He said Souths, who start training on Tuesday night, had a few “irons in the fire” to find a replacement for Heta.
Hawks president Mark Johnson was ecstatic to announce the signing on Tuesday morning.
“It’s just huge, it’s massive. I’d say it’s probably the biggest signing the club’s had since, well, since I don’t know when,” Johnson told the Central Western Daily.