Cronulla have signed Dragons captain Cameron McInnes on a four-year deal from 2022 after St George Illawarra failed to table a formal extension offer.
While McInnes's future has been the subject of much consternation over the past month, NRL.com understands the Sharks snuck under their traditional rivals' nose with a lengthy deal worth around $500,000 a season for the Red V skipper.
The Dragons and Sharks confirmed McInnes' exit on Tuesday after he informed his teammates of his looming departure.
No suggestion of an early release for 2021 has been made by either club or McInnes's management, with the 27-year-old set to see out the final year of his Dragons deal.
Negotiations with Cronulla are understood to have begun before Christmas.
Over that time speculation around his future under new coach Anthony Griffin mounted as the Dragons kicked off negotiations with McInnes.
Throughout the talks, St George Illawarra officials stressed the 27-year-old was well and truly in their retention plans, but a formal offer was never pushed across the table.
"We were well aware throughout our discussions with Cameron and his management that he wanted his future sorted prior to the season commencement," Dragons general manager of football Ben Haran said.
"There's always a process to contractual negotiations, but with our club going through a significant transition it's fair to say that Cameron and the club were working on different time frames.
"We understood why he wanted his future sorted immediately, which has since led to Cameron and his family securing an opportunity elsewhere.
"Cameron is a quality player and person who has brought a lot to St George Illawarra since arriving in 2017, and we're looking forward to him again playing a huge role in his final season at the club."
Wests Tigers also had the NSW Origin squad member in their sights but never entered formal talks with McInnes after he met coach Michael Maguire, who he has a bond with from their South Sydney days, for a catch-up before Christmas.
McInnes is slated to play lock for the Sharks, a plan that is understood to have been communicated to rising young hooker Blayke Brailey before the signing was announced.
His recruitment is a significant move for coach John Morris, the first major roster move in a year where several big-money contracts of star Sharks players come to an end.
"Cameron ticks all the boxes for us in that he has great attitude, he competes on every play and is an excellent defender," Morris said.
"But not only is he respected for what he can do on the field, he is of outstanding character, is a thorough professional who looks after himself and we are adding someone to our squad who is a leader and will be a major asset to our young developing players.
"He can play lock equally as well as he can play dummy half and that versatility, especially in the modern game, is very attractive to our club. Cameron has been brought mainly to play lock and will complement Blayke Brailey at hooker in a potent 9 and 13 combination that should have all Sharks fans very excited.
"He's a winner and we are very pleased he has agreed to join us in 2022."
McInnes is coming off the best season of his Telstra Premiership career and was selected in Brad Fittler's NSW squad for the State of Origin series but did not play in any of the three matches in November.
As for the Dragons, McInnes's looming exit points to Andrew McCullough being pursued even more heavily from Brisbane.
The Broncos have insisted the veteran rake won't be released, particularly with the Dragons pushing for Brisbane to pay a further portion of his 2021 deal.
New coach Kevin Walters has Jake Turpin on his roster while Kiwi international Issac Luke has remained at the club on a train-and-trial basis over the off-season.
Sharks in 2021
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