‘Pull my head in’: Flanagan’s revised plan for Dragons’ spare millions in cap space

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Shane Flanagan plans to adopt the cloak and dagger of his old Sharks set-up, given the Dragons boast millions of dollars more in free salary cap space than their rivals but are yet to land a marquee signing.

Flanagan has been refreshingly honest in identifying key transfer targets since being announced as St George Illawarra coach – with Addin Fonua-Blake, Tom Dearden, Joey Manu, Jack Welsby, Heilum Luki and Kulikefu Finefeuiaki all mentioned, and pursued to vastly different degrees.

The Dragons’ $4.5 million, four-year offer for Fonua-Blake has been easily their most serious bid for top talent. An offer for Luki is also believed to be in the works after he toured the club’s Wollongong base recently.

The club has worn its share of brickbats after Fonua-Blake opted for arch-rivals Cronulla, but lost among those headlines is news that Cody Ramsey has signed a 2025 extension.

Months of discussions with the NRL are set to have Ramsey’s wages not counted to St George Illawarra’s salary cap, and he won’t take up a top-30 spot over the next two seasons as he recovers from a career-threatening bowel condition.

The NRL’s proposed deregistration of five-eighth Talatau Amone is also expected to be finalised by the new year, shaving another estimated $400,000 off the club’s 2024 salary cap and leaving the Dragons with 27 contracted players.

The Red V hit list

  • Addin Fonua-Blake (Warriors) – offered a $4.5 million, four-year deal from 2025. Signed with Cronulla.
  • Jack Welsby (St Helens) – interest expressed via his manager. Re-signed with St Helens.
  • Tom Dearden (Cowboys) – interest expressed. Re-signed with North Queensland.
  • Joey Manu (Roosters) – interest expressed publicly by Flanagan. Still in extension talks with the Roosters.
  • Ezra Mam (Broncos) – interest expressed. Close to re-signing with Brisbane.
  • Heilum Luki (Cowboys) – has met Flanagan and toured the Dragons’ facilities.
  • Kulikefu Finefeuiaki (Cowboys) – interest expressed. Still a free agent.

Flanagan has ample cash to chase players immediately, and even more in 2025 – when the club’s 17 empty roster spots are more than any NRL rival.

By 2026, the number of contracted Dragons falls from 13 to six – prompting estimates of more than $9 million in spare cap space and effectively free rein in the market.

However, we might not hear much about it from Flanagan, who noted the narrative that has enveloped the Dragons and Wests Tigers when marquee signing targets are constantly talked up, as opposed to Cronulla’s softly softly approach.

“I’ve changed my attitude a little bit, we’ve been trying to bring the club along on our journey with our recruitment but that becomes hard,” Flanagan told this masthead.

The Dragons chased Addin Fonua-Blake as a marquee signing, only to be scooped by Cronulla.Credit: Getty

“I’m going to pull my head in a bit … I don’t want to go into those conversations as much now because we’re putting our head out there to get punched again.

“We’ll be out there punching as hard as we can, but we’ll keep it a little bit more in-house these days.

“A lot of the frustration when we miss out has an impact and creates a reaction to the club. But the fans can be assured that we are out there and things will turn around.”

As a result, Flanagan gives little away on potential targets. And as Canterbury boss Phil Gould has noted, pathways stalled by the pandemic and long-term deals accelerated by the NRL’s increased salary cap make for a sparse player market.

Rising Roosters prop Terrell May, Cronulla’s Braden Hamlin-Uele or David Klemmer (pending his situation at the Tigers) loom as the most appealing front-rowers in the market now Fonua-Blake’s future is sorted.

There is even less on the playmaking front as Luke Keary and the Roosters look to confirm his plans in the new year, Welsby and Dearden stay put at St Helens and North Queensland, and Ezra Mam prepares to sign long-term at Brisbane.

Flanagan continues to preach patience and will likely turn to son Kyle as Amone’s replacement alongside captain Ben Hunt at the scrum base.

Coming through the Red V ranks, too, is a crop of youngsters Flanagan expects to be handing NRL debuts to in the next 18 months – led by 22-year-old props Viliami Fifita and Alec Tuitavake, who had injury-impacted seasons after May’s trade with Manly for Aaron Woods.

“We’ve got some elite juniors here,” he said of the Dragons’ 9000-strong juniors nursery.

“They’re not ready to play first grade now, but in 12 months or 18 months, they definitely will be.

“There’s young kids that I won’t name to avoid putting pressure on them but the boys from Manly, they’re both ready to go after injuries last year.

“And that’s part of the turnaround. Yes, we need some external signings but we’re in really good shape internally with our young kids.”

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