Wests Group/Knights chief executive Phil Gardner says Newcastle should be aiming for the 2018 play-offs after confirming that NSW halfback Mitchell Pearce had agreed to their terms for a four-year deal.
The race to sign Pearce ended early on Thursday afternoon when the former Roosters halfback told the other two clubs with whom he had been negotiating, Manly and Cronulla, that he had accepted Newcastle’s offer.
All that remained was for the Wests Group board of directors to ratify the contract, understood to be worth more than $1 million a season.
Wests’ endorsement is considered a fait accompli, and there is a possibility that Pearce could be in Newcastle as early as Friday to meet his new teammates and face the media.
Pearce will become the highest-paid player in Newcastle’s history, and expectation of the impact he will have was best illustrated by bookmakers immediately winding in the three-time wooden spooners’ premierships odds.
The Knights tightened from $41 title long shots to $31, from $7.50 to $6 for the top four, and from $3.50 to $3 to make the play-offs for the first time since 2013.
Asked if the finals were a realistic goal, Gardner replied: “Absolutely”.
“If you bring in a player of the quality of Mitchell Pearce, you’ve got to have the expectation that the team will go better.
“You don’t go into any competition not to win it. That’s the ultimate goal and what we’re working towards.
“Realistically with regards to next year, even before Mitchell Pearce, we were confident we would improve and be very competitive.
“Now we have to be a bit better than that.”
Gardner was hopeful Pearce would not be the last player Newcastle recruit before 2018 kicks off.
They have already signed his former Roosters teammates Aidan Guerra and Connor Watson, ex-Broncos Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese, Kalyn Ponga (North Queensland) and Slade Griffin (Melbourne).
“We think that he is someone who will help us attract other players, because they will want to play with him,” Gardner said. “If there was player that suited the team and was capable of making a substantial difference, we would still be in a position to do something.”
Gardner said Knights coach Nathan Brown and football manager Darren Mooney deserved the credit for the Pearce coup.
“It’s a great vote of confidence in the program we have here at Newcastle,” Gardner said. “Mitchell lives in Cronulla and he’s played with a lot of their players in the NSW team, so the easy option would have been to sign with the Sharks. But he’s backed himself and the players we already have here to be successful, and we believe he can help take the team to another level.”
Gardner reiterated that Newcastle did not want to lose 20-year-old Maitland junior Brock Lamb, who was one of their standout performers last season.
Lamb has another year to run on his contract with the Knights, but there have been suggestions he may seek an early release, amid rumours that Manly are interested in signing him or Trent Hodkinson to replace Blake Green, who has joined the Warriors.
If Lamb stays, he faces a battle with Watson for the right to partner Pearce, and Brown has already stated on a number of occasions that Watson will get first shot at playing five-eighth.
“Brock’s a player of the future,” Gardner said. “He’s a very good prospect and a local junior, and he’s under contract at this club for another year.
“We want Brock to stay and get better. Good sides have depth.
“If Kalyn Ponga was injured, Connor Watson could play fullback and Brock in the halves. So we still see plenty of first-grade opportunity for Brock, and Mitchell Pearce can help make him a better player.”
Pearce’s signing leaves 29-year-old Hodkinson facing a career road block.
It is understood re-joining Manly, his original NRL club, might be an option.
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