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Opinion

Zac has max potential but Dragons should show him the door if he wants to take his lucrative contract elsewhere

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Expert
20th March, 2024
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The only reason St George Illawarra should be denying Zac Lomax a release is if they are trying to sweeten the deal for their own salary cap. 

Once they negotiate a deal where Parramatta or any other club takes on the majority or all of the many zeroes that remain on his contract, they should point him in a northward direction out the door. 

Players have preferred positions and Lomax clearly wants to be lining up at centre instead of the wing where new coach Shane Flanagan has used him for all of two rounds this year. 

Coaches are paid to pick the team they want and ultimately sacked if they keep picking the wrong one.

Flanagan is actually doing Lomax a favour by putting him on the flank because, based on the evidence thus far, he is a better winger from a small sample size than a centre from the vast majority of his previous 93 NRL appearances. 

Lomax has the size, speed and leaping ability to be a top-class winger with new Blues coach Michael Maguire immediately taking notice of his Round 1 display in the win over the Titans. 

If you ask most Dragons fans what they thought of Lomax as a centre since he made his debut in 2018, the common theme is that he’s too loose with the ball in hand. 

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A tremendous talent but a player who pushes low-percentage passes when the smarter option is to take a tackle. 

The one time that the flick pass from an improbable position to an unmarked winger works does not make up for the nine times it doesn’t. 

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - JULY 20: Zac Lomax of the Dragons greet fans after winning the round 21 NRL match between St George Illawarra Dragons and Wests Tigers at WIN Stadium on July 20, 2023 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

Zac Lomax. (Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

St George Illawarra took a gigantic gamble at the end of 2019 when they invested huge coin on Lomax after just 17 NRL matches. 

Already contracted for the following season, they tossed out a new deal worth a reported $800,000 annually for five more years. 

That means he has the best part of three seasons left on that agreement. 

The best centres in the NRL have only just started earning that kind of money. 

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It should have been a red flag, or a lesson, to the Dragons that at around the same time they were sealing their Lomax deal, the Roosters were refusing to budge on paying their two-time premiership-winning centre by the name of Latrell Mitchell any more than $800K. 

Centres, even the very best ones, don’t touch the ball enough in the current way NRL teams operate and throwing too many dollars at this position is a recipe for disaster and it means less salary cap to spend on the influential players like halves and fullbacks.

There has been little return on investment for the Dragons’ multimillion-dollar outlay on Lomax. He could be their version of the Wests Tigers’ ongoing Luke Brooks overypay if they keep him on the books. 

The Dragons are in the very early stages of rebuilding their roster after the Anthony Griffin disaster of the previous three years where some of his over-the-hill acolytes were brought to the club as a short-term solution which only contributed to a long-term problem. 

Freeing up funds by letting Lomax leave makes sense, even if they have to pay a small portion of the $2m remaining on his deal. 

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There are few, if any, marquee names coming off contract at the end of this season but that’s not how modern-day free agency works in the NRL. Clubs need to snare a big name a year in advance or wait for a star to get disgruntled at the current team and ask out. 

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept in the NRL’s rubbery contract dystopia, which to be fair is fuelled as much by the clubs breaking deals as it is by the players.

One player who knows how hard it is to break a deal at the Dragons when it doesn’t suit them is captain Ben Hunt, who unsuccessfully tried multiple times last season to get a release from the final two years of his contract. 

Hunt told reporters at training in Wollongong on Wednesday that he had chatted with Lomax about his current situation. 

“Zac and I, we talk a bit,” Hunt said.

(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

“I’m aware that he does want to leave but he’s not showing that he’s unhappy and he seems like he’s enjoying himself. To me, anyway.

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“He’s getting around the place with energy. Whenever he wants advice, he knows that I’m always happy to give it. He’s very open Zac, and he’ll always ask for something if he needs it.”

“He’s been our best player the last two weeks, to be honest. I can’t fault either of his games. He definitely wasn’t the reason we lost (38-0 in Round 2 to the Dolphins).

“Whether he likes the position or not, he’s doing a bloody good job of it.”

The Eels have a vacancy at centre alongside Will Penisini but Lomax needs to be careful what he wishes for.

A couple of decades ago the Dragons switched Brent Kite from his favoured position in the second row to prop. 

Kite enjoyed running wide against smaller bodies and was resistant to the change of moving into the middle.

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Similar to the current situation where Lomax has been freed up from having options at centre to a more regimented routine on the wing, Kite thrived as a front-rower. He attracted a massive offer from Manly and went on to establish himself as one of the best props in the game, win two premierships and a Clive Churchill Medal. 

Particularly when it comes to the position that best suits them, players don’t always know what’s best for them.

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