The Warriors have been left reeling by the news that pack leader Addin Fonua-Blake has asked for an immediate release from the club in order to move back to Australia.
The club, however, have managed to secure a grace period before their man leaves, with Fonua-Blake now agreeing to stay in New Zealand for another year in order to give the club time to find a replacement.
His contract is until 2026 and earns him $1m per year, and the Warriors were reticent to let their pack leader walk in 2024, instead allowing him to depart in 2025, news that will give prospective suitors in Sydney chance to sort their salary caps out before making their move.
“My only motivation for this move is for family reasons,” said the player. “But I really want all Warriors fans to know that I am fully committed to getting into the 2024 season.
“I can’t wait to get back to training with my teammates with the aim to go even further in the upcoming season.”
The Tongan international prop is unhappy in Auckland and wishes to return to Sydney to be closer to his parents, who are reported to be struggling with health issues.
The news has put some of the NRL’s biggest names on notice, with several clubs likely to take an active interest in signing one of the game’s best big men.
St George Illawarra, his junior club, would be an obvious choice given their desire for marquee names and salary cap situation.
With half of their roster off at the end of the year, new coach Shane Flanagan has plenty of flexibility to offer deals from 2025 onwards.
Fonua-Blake was also coached by returning assistant coach Dean Young when he came through the club’s junior pathways.
“We’ll be monitoring what happens there, that’s for sure,” the Dragons coach told AAP. “We want good players and he fits into that category.
“Without a doubt we’ll look at it because he’s got a history with our club.”
Manly, whom he left to join the Warriors, would also be likely to make a bid. They will likely be able to find space if Josh Aloiai, heavily linked with Leigh in the Super League, departs at the end of the year, or if they dispense with Matt Lodge, who is on a one-year contract.
The Bulldogs are in desperate need of a middle like Fonua-Blake, but would have to move multiple pieces around to make it work with their salary cap. They have been trying to get rid of Josh Addo-Carr, with Parramatta sniffing around, and this could certainly incentivise them to make that happen.
The Tigers, too, are crying out for a player like AFB, though they would likely be bottom of his list given their continued poor performances. Only if they broke the bank would they stand a chance.
Of the other Sydney clubs, the Bunnies and Roosters would not have the cap space unless there is a significant departure, the Panthers and Eels already have their starting props locked in long term and the Sharks would likely not prioritise signing front rowers.
For New Zealand, the decision comes at a terrible time. They have huge numbers off contract come the end of next year and Fonua-Blake was one of their longest-contracted players, with the intention that he fill the leadership vacuum that will inevitably arise when Shaun Johnson and Tohu Harris retire.