‘It may be best for Stephen to test the market’: Why Crichton felt unloved at Panthers

Last Friday night Stephen Crichton phoned a former teammate to gauge his feelings towards Penrith over the way the club had handled his contract negotiations.

The advice was in line with what most players will tell you these days – look after yourself and your family.

Stephen Crichton, Brian To’o, Izack Tago and Taylan May.Credit:Janie Barrett

His manager, Liam Ayoub, says Crichton was torn. The Samoan international knew staying at Penrith, his junior club, with all of his closest friends was looking after himself.

But by the end of the negotiation process, which had dragged on almost 10 months, Ayoub says his client had started to doubt if he was still valued by the club.

When Crichton called coach Ivan Cleary on Sunday to tell him he would be moving on at season’s end, he did so armed with the knowledge that the club was going to table him a revised offer the following day.

Crichton no longer saw his future at a club he believed had been stalling the negotiation process, regardless of what was going to be put on the table the next day.

He believed the club saw him as a replaceable commodity. Ayoub says Crichton would not have had an issue with that had the club have been transparent from the start.

He had learned, through conversations with people in the know, that the club had privately decided that if someone had to be squeezed out by the salary cap as a repercussion of the club’s success, he would be the one to go.

“Through multiple discussions that I had with the club, our camp felt that Penrith were reluctant to come back to the negotiation table and had, in fact, decided to spend the money elsewhere,” Ayoub says.

“Why else would they tell us, before they had re-signed other players, that Stephen could go to market? And at the same time, despite our attempts, also not come back to us with even a ball-park figure or perceived value from their end.”

Canterbury have signed Stephen Crichton on a four-year deal from 2024.Credit:NRL Photos

The good clubs have key players on cheap deals. Penrith has to find bargain deals to offset the $1.3 million they pay to the game’s best player, Nathan Cleary.

Crichton was never going to be a value-for-money signing for them, especially with the production line of cheap but talented outside backs coming through the system.

Nor was he going to be a fullback when Penrith were getting so much value out of Clive Churchill medallist Dylan Edwards on about $500,000 a season.

The Panthers say they offered Crichton a new deal back in May, at the same time as they made offers to Brian To’o and Izack Tago, who are also managed by Ayoub.

That offer was a two-year deal worth close to $700,000. It included a ratchet clause (to match forecasted salary cap increase which has since been set at 18 per cent) and a car.

Crichton with close friends Brian To’o and Jarome Luai.Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

The deal with Tago was done quickly. Both parties then agreed to hold off on negotiations through the Origin period.

Ayoub says that on July 29 he sent two separate emails to Panthers rugby league chief executive Matt Cameron.

One detailed his expectations around what it would take to extend To’o, a deal that was finalised in December.

The other was a proposal for an extension of just one year for Crichton. It was believed to be worth around $800,000. It also included a car and a ratchet clause.

“We never received any terms back but were met with a ‘it may be best for Stephen to go to market’,” Ayoub says. “That offer from May was also no longer on the table.

“Then we were given an impression that Stephen would need to stay on money far lower than what he was on in 2023 to stay beyond that.”

Penrith saw the short-term extension request as a sign Crichton was already thinking about the exit doors.

Ayoub, though, says it was a reflection of Crichton’s desire to stay – that he would forego the security of a long-term extension to provide the club with a future window to decide where he best fit into the team.

Ayoub says Crichton never made demands around the No.1 jersey, but made Penrith aware of approaches from rival clubs, which included the promise of the coveted fullback position.

Stephen Crichton is heading elsewhere in 2024.Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

A one-year extension would have seen both him and Edwards off contract at the same time and at least allow the club to then decide where the pieces fit into the complex salary cap puzzle.

“None of this was ever about Stephen playing fullback or chasing fullback money, and we made that clear,” Ayoub says.

“But he does have the right to hear and understand where interest elsewhere may lie.”

For Penrith, it was difficult to put forward a competitive offer without knowing the salary cap, which is still the subject of the drawn-out dispute between the NRL and the Rugby League Players’ Association.

It’s why they waited until they finally got NRL approval last week before determining their position on Crichton.

The Crichton camp believes the Panthers’ approach is not consistent with how they negotiated with To’o and Liam Martin.

Panthers sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the financial nature of the conversation, say the deal that was never tabled was worth between $700,000-$750,000.

That is about $100,000-$150,000 per season less than Crichton will receive as part of a new four-year deal signed at the Bulldogs.

Part of the reason Penrith were wary of negotiations with Crichton was the strength of speculation surrounding a potential reunion with Cameron Ciraldo at the Bulldogs.

New Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo.Credit:Louie Douvis

“Everyone can guess and assume whatever they want,” Ayoub says. “It’s going to make sense that he looks to see if Cameron is interested in him coming.

“No offer was ever made, but of course, he knew where the original offer was from the beginning and where the market was. He and his family were aware of every conversation I had with Penrith and every club.”

Cameron declined to comment when contacted by the Herald on Sunday. Crichton and Penrith now find themselves in a delicate position. The player has been advised against voicing his frustrations publicly.

The Panthers also don’t want to inflame the situation for fear of having a disgruntled player on their roster in their quest for a premiership three-peat, although they have taken umbrage at suggestions they have disrespected him.

It may have not been the club’s intention but, regardless, the outcome is Crichton will become the first local junior of Penrith’s last two premiership-winning teams to leave. And he will do so with a sour taste in his mouth.

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