Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

NRL: Contracts on the line for many players

Ben Matulino is off contract at the end of the 2015 season. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Matulino is off contract at the end of the 2015 season. Photo / Getty Images

If the week-to-week motivation of the NRL is not enough, many key Warriors are also playing for their futures over the next few weeks.

A clutch of high-profile players are off contract at the end of this year, including Jacob Lillyman, Kevin Locke, Jerome Ropati, Nathan Friend and Sione Lousi.

The next six-week period will be crucial for the Auckland club. Not only do they have to get results on the field - this season is already shaping as more competitive and, with several squads noticeably stronger, there will be no return from a poor start - they also have to make good decisions off the field.
As well players with contracts expiring at the end of this season, others will be free agents by the end of the 2015 season. Among them are Simon Mannering, Ben Matulino, Thomas Leuluai and Sam Rapira, as well as youngsters like Konrad Hurrell, Ngani Laumape and Glen Fisiiahi.

Currently, only five players from the NRL squad are contracted beyond next season. That figure includes Sam Tomkins, Shaun Johnson and Feleti Mateo. Recruitment and retention is a fine balance in the NRL. Top players are being targeted earlier and earlier (look at the Bulldogs recent swoop for Andrew Fifita or Elijah Taylor's departure to Penrith before the start of last season) and even the best young players need to be secured quickly (Manly signed Warriors' NYC star Peta Hiku weeks into the 2012 season).

The ongoing questions are - who to retain, who to upgrade, who to chase, who to cut?

"It's fair to say we will be looking hard at our squad in the next few months," Warriors General Manager Football Dean Bell told the Herald on Sunday. "We have a lot of decisions to make, it's a key period."

Bell, along with the coaching staff, will be keenly observing form and fitness, particularly during the next few rounds: "In some cases performances that we see will help to dictate the decision we make. With other players it's less of a consideration. We don't need to wait and see what they are going to produce; it's a known quantity. Others though will have something to prove."

Bell describes the current environment as difficult - "The market has gone really high and managing the salary cap is getting tricky" - and it doesn't help that the salary cap is fixed in Australian dollars. It leaves the club vulnerable to exchange rate fluctuations that can affect its actual cap figure by more than $100,000 each year.

The Warriors insist they like to target players rather than positions - borne out by their pursuit of Tomkins last year - but there are some obvious positional deficiencies that need to be addressed.

As it has been since for many years (probably since the departure of Brent Tate) centre remains a concern. Dane Nielsen has yet to reproduce his Melbourne form that saw him play State of Origin, while Konrad Hurrell is still learning the defensive arts of the game. Carlos Tuimavave hasn't been able to stamp his mark on first grade in his few opportunities and Jerome Ropati is still to prove his body can handle an extended run in the NRL. Simon Mannering and Ben Henry are both excellent stop-gap options but the club needs to aspire beyond that. There is a need for a genuinely top-class centre to build a backline around (Hurrell should become that player, but not for a while) and finding one should be a top priority.

Fullback and wing look well covered, as does the halves though that will depend on the progress of Chad Townsend and Tuimoala Lolohea and the recovery of Thomas Leuluai. In the pack the back row also looks to have enough depth, but a hooker (depending on Friend's impact this season) and a dominant prop might be on the shopping list.

"We are already looking at external recruitment for 2015," says Bell. "We are constantly monitoring who is available and who might suit our requirements."

Warriors off contract

End of 2014: Jacob Lillyman, Jerome Ropati, Nathan Friend, Sione Lousi, Charlie Gubb, Siliva Havili, Charlie Gubb, David Bhana, Albert Vete, Kevin Locke*, John Palavi*, Carlos Tuimavave*.

End of 2015: Simon Mannering, Ben Matulino, Dane Nielsen, Thomas Leuluai, Sam Rapira, Ngani Laumape, Manu Vatuvei, Ben Henry, Konrad Hurrell, Jayson Bukuya, Chad Townsend, Sam Lousi, Glen Fisiiahi, Dominique Peyroux.

End of 2016: Feleti Mateo, Sam Tomkins, Suaia Matagi, Tuimoala Lolohea.

End of 2017: Shaun Johnson.

* One year option.

- Herald on Sunday

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