Cronulla’s selection of Connor Tracey at centre for Saturday’s clash with Parramatta while Andrew Fifita bides his time at Newtown has convinced Dragons officials that a move for the out-of-favour prop could be good for all parties.
St George Illawarra's search for an experienced middle forward intensified after former captain Cameron McInnes ruptured his ACL at training last month and a possible solution emerged when Fifita played in the curtain-raiser to their opening-round clash with the Sharks.
Fifita is understood to have told St George Illawarra players he would be interested in playing alongside them and he knows Dragons coach Anthony Griffin from their time together with the Tongan team which beat Australia at the end 2019.
There are hurdles to overcome and it is understood discussions between the two clubs are yet to begin but there would be obvious benefits for both if a deal can be reached.
The Sharks are well stocked for middle forwards, with Toby Rudolf, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Aiden Tolman, Aaron Woods and Billy Magoulias keeping Fifita out of the NRL team and Royce Hunt (knee) and Siosifa Talakai (shoulder) due to return next month.
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Yet the depth in their outside backs has already been exposed, with Tracey spending the pre-season preparing for a shift from five-eighth to fullback and now finding himself in the centres following the suspension of Jesse Ramien.
If Fifita were to join the Dragons, it would free money and space in their salary cap for an outside back or a back-up to hooker Blayke Brailey but the Sharks haven’t yet been approached about releasing the 31-year-old front-rower.
Sharks five-eighth Matt Moylan said Fifita just wanted to play first grade and he had been working hard to regain his place in the NRL team after being overlooked for the opening three Telstra Premiership rounds.
"He has been training hard, and he is still working on the stuff they want him to work on to get back into the side," Moylan said. "He really just wants to play first grade, obviously, and he is doing everything he can to get back there."
The main sticking point to a potential deal is likely to be money as Fifita is reportedly on about $800,000 per season with Cronulla for this year and 2022 – a figure St George Illawarra are unlikely to want to pay.
However, the Sharks have already paid nearly five months of this season’s salary and if the Dragons were to pay half of his remaining contract money it would likely cost each club about $635,000 until the end of 2022.
Cronulla coach John Morris has effectively been unable to recruit in his first three seasons at the helm due to a combination of high-priced contracts for the likes of Fifita, Josh Dugan, Matt Moylan and Shaun Johnson and a salary cap worth $300,000 less than rivals due to past breaches.
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Just 12 months ago Morris was forced to release namesake Josh Morris to Sydney Roosters, where the veteran centre thrived playing alongside twin Brett.
His only signing of note was Ramien, who left the club in 2019 and returned last year after an unhappy stint in Newcastle was cut short.
With the NRL anti-doping tribunal handing down a four-year ban to Bronson Xerri on Tuesday, the Sharks no longer need to consider the former centre in their salary cap or roster and the departure of Fifita could give them about $500,000 to spend before the August 1 transfer deadline.
Sharks prop Braden Hamlin-Uele told the NRL.com preview podcast that Fifita would be ready to go in the NRL whenever he gets recalled.
“He’s been nothing but phenomenal. You never see him with a frown on his face. All this stuff in the media, that’s in the media.
“He comes to us with a smile on his face and is raring to go.
“He’s always on the front foot and is a good part of the group because he’s never negative. Whatever’s happening in his life he doesn’t bring it to work and I’ve never seen big Drew negative.
“In terms of his knee he’s looking fit. He’s lost a few kgs. I’ve never seen him this fit. He’ll keep biding his time.”
For the Dragons, Fifita would provide Griffin with another middle forward and much-needed experience for what is arguably the greenest squad in the NRL.
Halves Ben Hunt and Corey Norman, hooker Andrew McCullough, prop Paul Vaughan, second-rower Tariq Sims and interchange forward Trent Merrin are the only St George Illawarra players to have made more than 100 NRL appearances.
Fullback Matt Dufty, centre Jack Bird and lock Blake Lawrie are the only others to have reached 50.
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With former NSW Origin forward Jack de Belin subject to the NRL’s no fault stand-down policy until a verdict is determined in his re-trial on sexual assault charges, due to begin on April 12 at Sydney District Court, the Dragons have been lacking a middle forward of representative standing.
Hunt has backed the club’s interest in Fifita.
"I definitely think he could play a role. I think he would be a good asset for the team," the Dragons captain told SEN Radio.
"He brings something different to our team that we don’t really have a lot. He is obviously really big, he has got a good offload in his game and he is a pretty mobile big boy so I think he would be an asset for any team."