Matty: The hidden reason behind Panthers’ star exodus
BRYCE Cartwright has joined Matt Moylan in Penrith's star-studded off-season departure lounge as the Panthers' roster transformation continues at whirlwind pace.
Considering both were signed on with the club until the end of 2021, the moves symbolise a somewhat alarming rethink of the roster strategy to win the club an elusive first premiership under the club's high profile general manager Phil Gould.
The decisions to release both those players had off-field issues at their core but Matthew Johns also sees their departures as the culmination of a decision to leave no stone unturned to keep Nathan Cleary at Penrith long-term.
Still just 20, Cleary has had a phenomenal rise to stardom in his first two years at NRL level and Johns says his decision last year to knock back a lucrative long-term contract extension tabled by the Panthers was a light bulb moment for Gould.
"The other thing I think Gus knows is the money they're going to have to spend to keep Nathan Cleary is a lot more than they first thought - because they offered him a pretty big contract recently and he didn't sign on, he didn't extend," Johns said on Triple M's The Grill Team.
"So he's in for a big pay day when he next signs a contract."
Cleary is tied to Penrith until the end of the 2019 season but the panthers knew very early that tying him up long-term had to be a priority or it could cost them dearly.
When he was still 19 Gould pitched a deal to keep him at the club until the end of the 2022 season. It was reported to be worth roughly $3 million.
Gould can be a tough man to say no to but Cleary backed himself to continue to improve and as it stands his next contract will be worth significantly more than that - more than likely it will be significantly more than $1 million-a-season.
To make an offer like that the Panthers needed to start clearing the decks - Moylan, Cartwright and Leiulani Latu have since been released and Tyrone Peachey is expected to be next to go despite a contract with Penrith that doesn't expire until the end of next season.
It all adds up to a war chest that will ensure the Panthers can put together a massive offer to make Cleary the face of the franchise for the next decade if they choose to.
That's the financial side of things taken care of but Johns says what they do on the field this year will also play a big role in Cleary's decision, with the young halfback set to become a free agent on November 1 this year.
"Big year coming up for Penrith because if they do finish top four and threaten and get close to a title, I think that will convince Nathan to stay," Johns said.
"If it's a disappointing season it might make it very easy for him to walk out and join his dad at the Wests Tigers."
Speculation that Cleary will move clubs to join his father started when Ivan first took the job last year and the coach has thrown fuel on the fire with some provocative comments about it when he was interviewed by NRL.com last year.
"Basically we're both coming to the opinion that we'd like to play together. It's just a question of timing really," Cleary Snr said in November last year.
"He's still got two years to go at the Panthers and I think that's good for him. He's not in a hurry to decide that, but we both realise that this situation is a pretty unique opportunity.
"I was always conscious of never wanting to put him in a position that compromises him being up front.
"But the further (his career) is going I'm getting more confident it won't be a problem. But we're not thinking about it too much right now. Probably in 12 months time it will be more relevant."
Gould was peeved by those comments and it's forced him into action, with Garth Brennan's appointment at the Titans smoothing the way for players to be moved off Penrith's books.
Brennan has established relationships with many of the Panthers players he coached in the lower grades and the lines of communication between him and his old club have been open ever since he signed to succeed axed previous coach Neil Henry.
"What's interesting with Garth Brennan is he's brought a lot of these young guys at Penrith through," Johns said.
"And obviously they love him because Leilani Latu's gone up to the Gold Coast, Tyrone Peachey is going up to the Gold Coast next year...
"This was the story that was brewing just before Christmas, that Phil Gould was keen for Garth Brennan to take Bryce Cartwright to the Gold Coast because Gus believed that Bryce needed to very quickly, as soon as possible, get himself out of Sydney because he'd found himself in an unhealthy rut and that he wasn't going to be able to reach his potential out at Penrith and he wanted him out of Sydney," Johns said.
"He's allowed that to happen and I can see Cartwright's career getting back on the rails at Gold Coast."