AS the Knights desperately chase big names to bolster their roster for next season, their only current State of Origin player has become a target for rival clubs.
Queensland flyer Dane Gagai has a contractual option in his favour to stay with Newcastle for 2018, but reports surfaced on Friday that he has attracted interest from St George Illawarra.
There was also speculation that Wests Tigers, suddenly cashed-up after the defections of Mitchell Moses, James Tedesco and Aaron Woods, would be in position to make him an offer.
Gagai is one of a remarkable 17 members of Newcastle’s NRL squad who are free agents, but the club’s priority has apparently been to recruit high-profile, experienced imports to bolster their roster for next season.
Knights coach Nathan Brown has approached stars like Matt Scott, Dale Finucane, Matt Prior, Jack Bird, Kieran Foran and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, but the only confirmed signing for next year is North Queensland teenager Kalyn Ponga.
Brown admitted in the pre-season that he had spoken to Gagai about granting him an early release, saying in an interview “if there was any desire there for Gags to want to play in a stronger team, I wouldn’t have stood in his way.” Gagai said he “could see where Browny was coming from” but insisted he wanted to stay to help the back-to-back wooden spooners rebuild.
That resolve might be tested if he receives long-term offers to ply his trade elsewhere, especially after another disappointing start to the season by Newcastle.
Heading into Saturday’s clash with the Cowboys in Townsville, the Knights were again last on the ladder after one win from seven games.
The question of how hard Newcastle should try to retain Gagai is a vexing one.
He is arguably their most dangerous attacking player, and has carried the ball 225 metres and 161 metres in their past two games, against Canterbury and the Roosters.
He has also scored five tries in four Origin appearances for the Maroons, including a memorable hat-trick in game two last year.
But he has scored only four tries in his last 38 games for Newcastle.
The 26-year-old has consistently maintained since he arrived mid-season in 2012 that Newcastle feels like home.
Playing for a stronger club might improve his chances of representing Australia, but as he told the Herald in December: “Everyone is buying into what Browny is doing, and I'm confident he's putting together a team who will compete. I want to be a part of that.”
If Gagai was to move on, Kenny-Dowall might be a possible replacement after meeting with Brown on Wednesday.