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Rival clubs are growing increasingly bullish at the prospect of Dragons skipper Ben Hunt hitting the open market as St George Illawarra look to make Jack de Belin a one-club player, pending a final sign-off by their next coach.
Despite Hunt signing a two-year deal worth around $900,000 just days after the 2022 grand final, the Dragons’ disastrous campaign and sacking of Anthony Griffin has seen the skipper’s frustrations raised repeatedly in recent weeks.
Hunt, 33, is contracted to the club until the end of 2025 and while he declared his commitment to the Dragons as recently as Magic Round, he has largely held his counsel since Griffin’s departure two weeks ago.
No official offers can be put to Hunt by rivals unless he is given permission to negotiate elsewhere by the club.
But informed sources have indicated that both Canberra and the Gold Coast have discussed making a play for the Queensland and Australian Test playmaker, who also met with Bulldogs boss Phil Gould last year.
The Raiders’ interest is understood to have been relayed to Hunt’s management by a third party recently given Jack Wighton’s move to South Sydney frees up a significant portion of their salary cap.
Clouded future: Dragons captain Ben Hunt.Credit: Getty
The Titans, meanwhile, have made similar moves and offer a potential trump card given Hunt’s desire to move his young family back to Queensland once he retires.
Hunt told this masthead after Origin I to “interview me in a week or two and I’ll have more answers for you” regarding his future, while Dragons CEO Ryan Webb also acknowledged his captain’s angst around the club’s vacant coaching post after negotiations with Jason Ryles broke down.
“Ben’s frustrated at the moment, like a lot of people, because we’re not winning,” Webb told 2GB on Saturday.
“We built a base, we had 12 wins last year, and we came into the season with Anthony as coach and a lot of the squad was hoping that we’d take another step forward and maybe be on the edge of finals.
Jack de Belin celebrates a try against the Cowboys last month.Credit: Getty
“Ben’s a competitor. He wants to win. There’s frustration there, but I can’t say he’s alone in that. The coach is the first part in trying to correct this and show a plan moving forward.”
De Belin, who was knocked out and stretchered off after making an attempted tackle on Sunday night against Penrith, has told club officials he will take up a 2024 option in his contract, reportedly worth around $800,000 in the final season of what was initially a three-year deal.
The prospect of another two-year extension beyond 2024 has also been discussed by de Belin’s management and Dragons officials.
Final sign-off on tying de Belin down, in what would likely be his last NRL deal given he is already 32, would rest with whoever eventually takes charge as coach.
De Belin’s form in a struggling Dragons side this season prompted his consideration for a NSW recall by coach Brad Fittler before Origin I.
Sidelined for more than two years under the NRL’s no-fault stand down policy as he fought sexual assault charges stemming from a night out in 2018, de Belin told this masthead in April that “I’d like to add three years” beyond 2024, because, “in that time off I looked after my body. I’m a young 32, and still feel fantastic body-wise.”
After two separate court hearings, a jury in a second trial found de Belin not guilty of one sexual assault charge and couldn’t reach a verdict on five others.
He returned to the Dragons after the Director of Public Prosecutions opted not to pursue a third trial and withdrew the charges.
“I love the Dragons and have only ever envisaged myself being a one-club man,” de Belin said recently.
“The club has been loyal to me and I have been loyal to the club. It’s a two-way street, and we have both been good to each other. I would like to think it continues on in the future.”
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