Rhinos’ move on Tonga may allow Folau to join Eels

Parramatta Eels Coach Ricky Stuart with players. Trimming the fat … Eels Coach Ricky Stuart with players at pre-season training.

INTEREST in Willie Tonga from English Super League premiers Leeds might help Parramatta to sign Israel Folau, with the Eels having been told to shed players to accommodate the returning AFL star under the salary cap for next season.

Despite Parramatta’s release of Tonga’s brother Esi and Kiwi second-rower Justin Horo to Manly earlier this week, Fairfax Media understands that the club has only $110,000 left under the salary cap.

The Eels are looking to find third-party deals for Folau, who was granted a release from his $1.5 million-per-season AFL contract two weeks ago, but NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert has ruled out allowing them to sign the 23-year-old for $110,000.

Folau wants to play for Parramatta but the only way the club can fit him under the salary cap next season is if other players leave. Sources in England have said that Leeds are keen to sign Tonga.

Rhinos boss Garry Hetherington has said the club is on the hunt for a ”quality centre” from the NRL and it is understood his focus is on Tonga, who has another year to run on his contract with the Eels.

The 29-year-old former Queensland and Australian centre might consider the move if a long-term deal is offered. However, it is understood Parramatta officials will not ask any player to leave so they can accommodate Folau and hope to resolve the situation with the NRL.

Parramatta chief executive Ken Edwards and recruitment manager Peter Nolan have discussed with Schubert and NRL interim chief executive Shane Mattiske how the club could add Folau to its roster, but new coach Ricky Stuart is frustrated by the delays.

Because of Parramatta’s salary cap issue, the Eels and Folau have not been able to negotiate a contract as they do not know how much the club can afford to pay him next season.

With up to 20 players off contract at the end of next season, the club does not have any problems beyond 2013 but it is struggling to finalise a deal that is acceptable to the NRL.

The case has echoes of the Greg Inglis saga two years ago after he was forced to leave Melbourne because of the club’s salary cap scandal.

However, the NRL refused to register his contract with Brisbane and South Sydney also went through weeks of protracted negotiations and were forced to release centre Beau Champion after Schubert ruled third-party payments had to come under the salary cap.

At the time a disillusioned Inglis, who recently signed a $4million, five-year deal with the Rabbitohs, believed that the NRL did not want him and considered switching to AFL after meeting Essendon coach James Hird.

Complicating the Folau case is that he was on huge money from the AFL to help promote Greater Western Sydney Giants, but would not command the same value in the NRL as he has not played league for two years.

However, his signing with the Eels would still be a marketing coup for the NRL in the battle between the codes for western Sydney and has already helped Parramatta to sell memberships.

Meanwhile, Willie Mason has re-signed with Newcastle for two more seasons. The former Test forward joined Newcastle, his home-town club, earlier this year on a cut-price deal and showed enough form to secure an extension. He will be 34 by the time this deal expires.

”Willie made a wonderful contribution to the Knights from the minute he arrived, which has been well documented,” coach Wayne Bennett said.

”We are all looking forward to seeing what a good pre-season can do for him as well as seeing him play with the Knights for the next two seasons.”

Mason said he always expected to re-sign with the Knights.

”The deal was done earlier in the year and I am glad all the formalities have now been finalised,” Mason said. ”I am very excited to be a Knight for the next two years.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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