NRL market watch: Kai Pearce-Paul and Will Pryce to join Newcastle Knights
Good news Newcastle fans, two of the UK’s brightest stars are coming to the club – bad news is they aren’t coming straight away. LATEST CONTRACT MOVES
England’s version of Sonny Bill Williams is coming to the NRL.
After months of speculation, the Knights have confirmed they have secured the signatures of Super League sensations Kai Pearce-Paul and Will Pryce to help spearhead a rebuild in the Steel City.
Newly-appointed Newcastle football boss Peter Parr says Pearce-Paul and Pryce will be in Knights colours from 2024 after the club’s recruitment chief Clint Zammit flew to England earlier this year to watch the duo from close range.
Wigan whiz-kid Pearce-Paul, 21, is a blockbusting back-rower likened in playing style to NRL legend Sonny Bill Williams, while the 19-year-old Pryce has lit up the Super League with his sizzling performances for Huddersfield.
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“They are both coming in 2024,” said Parr, who joined Newcastle after two decades at the Cowboys.
“Our recruitment chief Clint Zammit has an enormous wrap on Pearce-Paul and Pryce.
“One (Pryce) is a playmaker and the other one (Pearce-Paul) is a gun in the back row so we’re looking forward to their arrival.
“From what Clint tells me, they are committed to coming here in 2024 and that will be exciting for our roster.
Newcastle made subtle inquiries about having Pearce-Paul and Pryce in Knights colours next season, but Wigan and Huddersfield are reluctant to agree to an early release for the rising stars at this stage.
Pryce is the son of former 24-Test England star Leon, while Pearce-Paul recently told British media his older brother Kameron, who plays for London Skolars, labelled him an SBW clone.
“My brother has been saying that since I was young, that I’d be the next Sonny Bill Williams,” said Pearce-Paul, who is 196cm and 101kg.
“I like to offload, a similar style to Sonny Bill. He’s a great, great player, someone I looked up to when I was young.”
TITANS EYE OFF MORE THAN ONE ROOSTER
The Titans have formulated plans to raid the Roosters, with Gold Coast eyeing rising Sydney prop Fletcher Baker after snaring hooker Sam Verrills.
As revealed by The Daily Telegraph last month, Verrills, 23, has been released from his 2023 contract with the Roosters to sign a two-year deal with the Titans until the end of 2024.
The 2019 premiership-winning hooker’s move to the Gold Coast comes on the back of the Roosters beating the Titans for the signature of Melbourne Storm star Brandon Smith.
The Titans went in hard for Smith last year only to be trumped by the Roosters and will instead start Verrills in the No. 9 jersey next season.
The Titans have gone through most of the 2022 season without a genuine dummy-half and paid the price, currently sitting last with only three wins as coach Justin Holbrook fights for his future.
Verrills and Manly’s veteran five-eighth Kieran Foran – who will confront the Gold Coast at Cbus Super Stadium on Sunday – are the two players Holbrook is banking on to spark a Titanic resurrection next year.
After making his NRL debut in 2019 and starting at hooker in the Roosters’ grand final win against Canberra, Verrills has played 43 games in an injury-interrupted career.
Holbrook said Verrills was a quality signing for the Titans.
“Sam has great vision and is a real threat from that hooker position,” Holbrook said.
“He’s learnt his craft under Origin hooker Jake Friend and has been able to really shine in that number nine jersey for the Roosters in recent seasons.
“We’ve got great experience joining our spine next year with the arrival of Kieran Foran and our key positions will be further bolstered with Sam’s arrival.
“When you add those two players to our mix of exciting young players who have come through our pathway programs here on the Coast like AJ Brimson, Jayden Campbell and Toby Sexton, we’re really confident with the squad we are building for next year and beyond.”
Verrills isn’t the only player the Titans want to lure north from Bondi.
Emerging prop Baker has come on the radar of the Gold Coast’s recruitment department as the club prepares to farewell forwards Jarrod Wallace, Herman Ese’ese and Kevin Proctor.
Baker, 22, is a towering middle forward at 194cm and 107kg and has played 30 NRL games since debuting last year.
While he hasn’t been able to crack the Roosters’ best 17 recently, the Sydney club has a high opinion of Baker and is unlikely to let him go without a fight.
Baker is contracted to the Roosters until the end of the 2023 season, making him a free agent from November 1 this year.
The Roosters released Verrills from his 2023 contract but they are unlikely to be as accommodating with Baker, who has a long-term future at the Tri-Colours.
SHARKS SKIPPER CLOSING IN ON NEW DEAL
Wade Graham is edging closer to securing a remarkable 16th season in the NRL, while also revealing his ambition to enter the coaching hot seat.
With the in-form Sharks chasing a top-two finish, the experienced Graham has been content to allow his future to take a back seat to the club’s finals push.
However, the 31-year-old has confirmed that behind the scenes he has been in talks with the Sharks to secure a new one-year deal.
“I’ve had some discussions with the club and I’m certainly comfortable with where things are heading,’’ Graham said.
“It’s not at the forefront of my priority list, there’s a great opportunity ahead of us as a club and that’s my priority.
“I’m comfortable with a one-year contract and you never know, if I get to this time next year and I’m still feeling good, you never know.
“But definitely at this stage I’m looking at one year (only).’’
Forced to endure almost 12 months on the sideline due to head knocks and an ankle injury in February this year, Graham is slowly getting back to his former self.
He has led the Sharks to a 7-1 record over the past two months, with Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon using the skilful backrower as a lock-forward during matches.
Graham was superb last weekend against the Dragons, producing three tackle busts, a try, one line break and a high workrate of 35 tackles in the Sharks’ win.
Having made his first grade debut as a baby-faced 17-year-old with Penrith in 2008, Graham said he is passionate about helping the club’s plethora of young stars develop into the NRL.
He added that included the option of transitioning into coaching, once his time is up in the NRL.
The off-contract Sharks captain is enrolled in the same coaching accreditation course being undertaken by future Wests Tigers coach Benji Marshall.
“Footy is all I’ve ever known as a six year-old,’’ the 270-game first-grade player said.
“I started playing first grade at 17, straight out of high school, so I came into a full-time job straight away.
“So moving forward, I’d definitely like to stay involved. It’s what I’ve dedicated my whole life to. Coaching is definitely an option. I’m doing my accreditation with Benji Marshall.
“He’s already got a job, I’ll have to hit him up to try to be one of his assistants. I’d love to be able to give the game something back after it’s given me so much for so many years.’’
The Sharks travel to Tamworth on Saturday to tackle the Wests Tigers.
“We’ve worked extremely hard all year and now we have to make the most of this opportunity and come home strong because top four is a big advantage,’’ Graham said.
Tough Bronco set for big pay rise
Kobe Hetherington’s rugby league rise is set to continue, with the son of the gun in line for a $200,000-a-year pay rise.
After considering quitting rugby league to become a miner three years ago, Hetherington’s current deal could be doubled as the Broncos look to lock down the tough-as-teak forward before he becomes a free agent on November 1.
News Corp can reveal the Broncos have begun contract talks with Hetherington and hope to re-sign him on a new two-year deal.
Now on a bargain basement contract after being plucked from Brisbane’s third-tier competition, Hetherington, 23, could attract offers in excess of $300,000 a year should he decide to test his value on the open market.
It’s understood that at least one Sydney club intends to make a serious play for Hetherington should the Broncos fail to extend his deal.
Hetherington is keen to stay loyal to the club that gave him his NRL shot.
Like his father Jason, who played eight State of Origin matches for Queensland and won a premiership with the Bulldogs, Kobe is an uncompromising defender who hits like a cement truck.
“He is going well and he will only get better,” father Jason said.
“He is still growing, believe it or not, so he will get bigger too. I am really happy with his progression and the way he is handling it all.”
While he still calls himself a Bulldog, Jason said he would be happy to see his son stay in Brisbane and play for Broncos.
“He was given an opportunity at the Broncos and he grabbed it,” Jason said.
“I am happy for him regardless of what club he is playing for. At the end of the day, the decision as to where he plays will be up to him.”
Cowboys fight to keep No. 1 guns
-Travis Meyn, Peter Badel
The Cowboys insist they will fight to retain excitement machines Scott Drinkwater and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow amid $2 million bids for the North Queensland duo.
Tabuai-Fidow will make a seemingly rare starting appearance for the Cowboys in Sunday’s crucial clash with the Bulldogs at Bundaberg’s Salter Oval, where a win will take North Queensland another step closer to a top two finish.
“The Hammer” has been grounded for much of 2022, with injuries and the form of North Queensland’s talented backline keeping one of the NRL’s fastest players on the bench in seven of the past 12 rounds.
That has raised a conundrum in Townsville regarding the long-term futures of Drinkwater and Tabuai-Fidow.
After being overlooked for the No. 1 jersey to start the season in favour of Tabuai-Fidow, Drinkwater has made fullback his own with a series of scintillating performances to become one of the NRL’s most in-demand players.
The Dolphins are one of a number of clubs interested in luring either Drinkwater or Tabuai-Fidow south, with both players coming off-contract at the end of 2023.
But the Cowboys insist there is room for both in North Queensland and they are aiming to retain the duo before they hit the open market on November 1.
“Drinky is playing really well and we would love to keep him long-term, we are working towards that at the moment,” Cowboys football chief Micheal Luck said.
“He enjoys it up here, him and his partner enjoy the lifestyle.
“He’s done everything he’s been asked of this year. He has been fantastic. It’s a great credit to him. In the off-season Toddy (coach Todd Payten) put it in front of him and Hammer that they were both a chance of playing fullback and whoever did the best job over the off-season would get the jump, that was Hammer.
“Drinky, to his credit, didn’t drop his lip. He went back to Mackay and worked hard in the Q-Cup and had a couple of good games. He came back and hasn’t missed a beat in first grade. He has done great.
“It’s a great luxury to be able to have guys as talented as those two both in the squad. They compete with each other every day and have made each other better.
“For sure (we want to keep them both). Drinky is playing really well at fullback and Hammer is playing on the wing this weekend and has played in the centres and off the bench and done a good job at all of them.”
Payten has had the luxury of having both Drinkwater and Tabuai-Fidow as fullback options.
Drinkwater has started at fullback in the past 15 games, scoring eight tries and setting up 19 to become one of the NRL’s most dangerous No. 1s.
After bringing Drinkwater north from Melbourne in 2019, he is a player the Cowboys do not want to lose.
“Our intentions are to keep him,” Payten said. “We’ve got some exciting players off-contract that are going to receive interest from a number of clubs through the next little period. It’s our obligation to make sure we have an environment that they want to stay part of.
“Winning games and improving them as footy players is a big part of that. That’s what we’re doing at the moment.”
Tabuai-Fidow started at fullback in the first four rounds before a knee injury saw him miss three games and he has struggled to find a spot in North Queensland’s starting 13 since.
He is averaging 52 minutes per game this year and will be thrust into a tantalising wing showdown with Bulldogs speedster Josh Addo-Carr, who has been electric in Canterbury’s late-season resurgence.
Payten said he expected Tabuai-Fidow to be up to the challenge in only his fourth starting appearance on the wing this season.
“Hammer’s got a challenge in front of him,” Payten said. “Both are exciting players to watch. They move really quickly. It will be an exciting battle on that flank.
“He’s done the work and got an opportunity. He’s been on the bench for a while so he’s excited to get out there. He’s been working really hard waiting for this opportunity.
“He is fresh, his body’s in good shape. He has ticked off all the work he’s needed to.”
Knights close in on try-scoring machine
-Michael Carrayannis, Brent Read
Newcastle are circling Super League try-scoring machine Bevan French.
News Corp has learnt the Knights are closing in on French, who is keen to return to Australia next season.
Wigan are resigned to losing French, who has been a revelation at the club this year. He scored a Super League record seven tries during Wigan’s 60-0 win against Hull FC last month.
The former Parramatta outside back is off-contract at season’s end and has been craving an NRL return.
It seems like Newcastle are primed to pounce. He gives the club some much needed back-up to fullback Kalyn Ponga and could push for a starting wing spot.
Newcastle have a host of players leaving at the end of the season. Back-up fullback Tex Hoy (Hull FC) and winger Edrick Lee (Dolphins) won’t be at the Knights next year.
If French does shine it also opens up the door for Ponga to switch into the halves should Newcastle fail to solve their halves dilemma.
As it stands, Newcastle are reluctant to move Ponga into the halves at this stage of his career.
French was a try-scoring machine during his time at Parramatta. The 26-year-old played 47 top grade games at the Eels between 2016-18 where he crossed 35 times.
He wanted to return to the NRL this year but the comeback did not eventuate despite meeting Parramatta and Canterbury officials. Instead he returned to Wigan and has set the competition alight.
He has switched between fullback and wing, scoring 24 tries from 18 games, including scoring at least a treble in three matches.
The Knights have signed forwards Jack Hetherington (Bulldogs) and Adam Elliott (Raiders) from next season and remain on the lookout to add a marquee half into the squad.
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They have continually been linked to Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks.
Newcastle have also added Super League duo Will Pryce and Kai Pearce-Paul for 2024.
Originally published as NRL market watch: Kai Pearce-Paul and Will Pryce to join Newcastle Knights