Former Penrith winger Sandor Earl has reacted with disbelief at the impending departure of Panthers captain Luke Lewis, insisting the club hierarchy risks alienating fans and players alike if they continue to let key players walk out the door.
Lewis is the third player in as many weeks to be granted a release by coach Ivan Cleary and managing director Phil Gould, following in the footsteps of Earl – who joined Canberra a fortnight ago – and hooker Nafe Seluini (Sydney Roosters). Star winger Michael Gordon will also leave the club at the end of the year after failing to cement his favoured fullback spot and signing on with Cronulla instead.
While Lewis will play out the remainder of the year with Penrith, his loss will hit the club particularly hard given his standing in the game. The NSW State of Origin forward debuted for the Panthers 11 years ago, took over the captaincy at the start of this season and is the only player remaining from Penrith’s 2003 premiership win, however it is believed he has grown frustrated by the direction Gould and Cleary are taking the club and the decision to temporarily strip him of the captaincy during the Origin period.
Earl, who was similarly frustrated by a lack of opportunity this season, said he was stunned by the events that have led to Lewis’ exit at the end of the 2012 season.
“I’m extremely shocked,” he said. “He’s a player that came into the side when he was 17 or 18, he has done everything you can in the game, he is captain of the club… for him to leave is disappointing. He would be up there as one of the best players I’ve played with. He took me under his wing at times so it would be disappointing for everyone.”
Asked if there was player unrest while he was still at the foot of the mountains, Earl said: “I can imagine that if Luke Lewis leaves the players will be unhappy. It’s hard to comment on what thoughts Ivan and Gus have. They know about running a club.
“But I’ve always had the opinion that it’s been very disappointing to see players like Trent Waterhouse and Petero [Civoniceva] leave… and now if Luke goes – I feel like they were the backbone of our team. They needed to be there. But if that’s the direction they want to go… I can imagine that the fans won’t be too happy.”
Earl was one of Penrith’s most impressive young players during his first year with the club in 2010, scoring a spectacular try against Canberra in the finals and signing a two-year extension late last year despite a shoulder injury ruling him out for most of the 2011 season.
However, he spent most of this year playing for Windsor in the NSW Cup before a phone call from Raiders captain David Shillington prompted him to seek a release.
“It (an opportunity at Penrith) just wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “With whatever is going on there and the way that we were going… every coach has their own opinions of different players and that’s fine, I understand that, but it just wasn’t happening.
“I thought it would be disappointing to be in good form and not get an opportunity in the NRL to be able to show it.
“But I guess it was an unusual situation. With my injuries last year, not having a pre-season and then a whole new set of coaching staff, there wasn’t an opportunity for them to say ‘well we know what you’re capable of, we’ll give you a bit of a crack’. That was disappointing.
“I would have liked to have strung a few games together but that’s just the way it is. I don’t have any really bad blood. I’m just lucky that Windsor is a great club.
“That’s why I was quite eager to make a move. If I was playing badly I would understand but I did have good form so I was thinking if I could just get somewhere and get an opportunity I knew I could make the most of it. Thank God it came along.”
While Lewis’ future remains somewhat clouded as he prepares to find a new home, Earl has apparently fallen on his feet.
His two appearances for the Raiders since moving to Canberra have brought consecutive wins for the first time in 2012 and he was among his side’s best in Saturday night’s 40-12 thrashing of competition leaders Melbourne.
“Coming here and falling straight in, it’s almost as if my life is on pause a bit – I’m a bit away from reality because I’ve always been in Sydney,” he said. “But coming in and having some faith put in me straight away really was great for my confidence and I think it’s showing. I mean, I’d rate that win over Melbourne as one of the best I’ve ever been a part of.
“I didn’t expect to come in and have it feel so comfortable. But what I’ve said to all the Canberra boys and even the coaching staff, the training is great, everyone is in really good spirits, it’s a breath of fresh air – I can’t get my head around how they’ve been losing.”
Earl only signed on with the Raiders for the remaining of the 2012 season but said he was keen to extend his stay.
“With the rush of it all and me not being in the greatest position football-wise to sign anything, I thought it would probably be best for me to get down here, back myself and show what I think I have to offer,” he said. “Then a few weeks down the line we can assess it again. But if things keep going like this I think I might have to stay in the nation’s capital for a while longer.”