William Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent, NRL.com
The Storm are hopeful they can re-sign young halfback Ben Hampton in what is shaping to be a player market of mixed success for the Victorian club.
Inking the signatures of captain Cameron Smith, Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris have come at the expense of losing others.
Young prop Mitch Garbutt has announced he will leave the club at season’s end to join the Brisbane Broncos on a two-year deal, while Ben Roberts and Cody Walker will also move on at season’s end.
Hampton, off contract in October, has also reportedly attracted interest from several rival clubs. The 22-year-old has played 11 games this season with mixed success in the halves as the Storm tried to cope with the absence of Cooper Cronk.
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The club tabled an offer to Hampton last week but are yet to receive an answer on his playing future.
The young Queenslander has been touted as a future Origin star, representing the Maroons throughout junior level as well as captaining the under-20s Queensland side in 2012.
Hampton’s manager Jim Banaghan spoke with NRL.com and while keeping relatively tight-lipped admitted “there’s lures everywhere in the water at the moment” to entice Hampton out of Melbourne.
With Walker and Roberts already out the door, Melbourne are at risk of losing three of their current halves at the end of the year.
Walker signed a two-year deal to join South Sydney in the summer while Roberts was tempted by a lucrative offer to join Super League side Castleford until the end of 2016.
Despite the double blow, Melbourne aren't ready to concede they'll see three halves walk out the door.
“We are working really hard with his [Hampton's] agent, hopefully he will stay here,” said Storm football director Frank Ponissi.
“We are hopeful of him staying without being overconfident. We are working hard to keep him.”
The Storm were left disappointed on Wednesday when Garbutt told them he would be leaving to join the Broncos.
Like Hampton, Garbutt debuted for the Storm in 2013 and has been considered arguably the best forward in the Intrust Super Cup this season.
However, the 25-year-old has managed just nine games in the purple jersey, being unable to displace fellow young forward Jordan McLean for a spot in Craig Bellamy’s top 17.
“He [Mitch] probably thinks there are better opportunities elsewhere in his position,” said Ponissi.
“From his point of view… he is looking to his future, and what the Broncs could offer compared to what we could offer was different.
“Where Mitch was on his contract 12 months ago to where he is now has increased significantly and there are a few others like that as well.
“It is like a jig-saw [puzzle] to try and all make it fit.”
That is the challenge facing the Storm.
In a player market that often demands inflated prices based on promise rather than proof, the salary cap squeeze proves a constant battle to manage.
“The fact of the matter is with a lot of the blokes coming off contract, their value in some cases, not all, increases significantly from what their other contract was,” said Ponissi.
“I feel for the fan who thinks, ‘well, why aren’t you keeping them?’… It is not what you think of the players, it is the value they are.
“Unfortunately as players get better their values increase and that becomes really difficult for us as a club to retain everybody.
“When you sign the likes of Cameron Smith, Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris… when you sign those types of players… that is unfortunately going to eat into your remaining funds for other players.
“We know we can’t keep them all but hopefully we can keep some, and some we will lose.”
Next on the must-keep agenda is Billy Slater. The superstar fullback comes off contract in a little over 12 months' time, making his retention the 'No.1' priority.