Cameron Smith has contacted Mitchell Pearce in an attempt to bring the in-demand halfback to Melbourne.
It's understood Pearce met Manly and Cronulla powerbrokers on Thursday and plans to hear Newcastle's pitch on Friday. However, the Storm has emerged as a shock contender for his services in what could become a stunning player swap with Roosters recruit Cooper Cronk.
Pearce has been on the wrong side of countless battles with Smith at State of Origin level. However, the Melbourne, Queensland and Australian captain holds Pearce in high regard and has called him about the prospect of joining the premiers. It's believed Smith spoke to the former Roosters halfback about the club's culture, the opportunity to play alongside some of the best players in the game and the chances of the club going back-to-back with the Blues No.7 in the side.
A shift south would also allow one of the NRL's most maligned players a chance to escape the constant scrutiny that follows his career in Sydney.
"We'd be crazy not to look at the situation where we could get Mitchell Pearce for next year," Smith told reporters from Kangaroos camp on Thursday.
"If he was keen to come to Melbourne I'd certainly say, 'We'd love to have you'."
Pearce would have to take a massive pay cut for the Storm to become a serious contender. The premiers have barely any room in their salary cap for next year after re-signing Billy Slater and extending or upgrading several other stars including wingers Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu.
Melbourne would have to shift several players and offer a heavily back-ended deal to be any chance. However, the lure of playing with the likes of Smith, Slater, Cameron Munster, Jesse Bromwich, Felise Kaufusi, Nelson Asofa-Solomona – as well as being coached by Craig Bellamy – would hold great appeal and increase Pearce's chances of winning a second grand final.
Manly remain the early frontrunners for Pearce's signature, although the NRL's investigation into potential salary-cap rorting is a cloud that continues to hang over Brookvale. The Sharks are also strong contenders and the addition of Pearce to either side would give them one of the game's strongest rosters. However, Newcastle have enough money in their salary cap to make Pearce a seven-figures-per-season player, where he could link up with former Roosters Shaun Kenny Dowall, Connor Watson and Aidan Guerra.
Speaking at the launch of the Festival of Indigenous Rugby League, former NSW coach Laurie Daley said Pearce would be looking to take his game to a new level at his next club.
"I think with Mitch, once he decided he needed to move on from the Roosters, he'll look at a club where he thinks he can add value and win a competition," Daley said.
"That's what we all want to see, the best players play at strong clubs and win comps.
"I don't know where he'll end up. There could be a smokey out there who comes in at the last moment and snaps him up.
"All the talk is Manly at the moment. If he went there he'd do a fantastic job with [Daly] Cherry-Evans.
"Newcastle have done well recruiting, and Browny [Nathan Brown] would teach him a lot, and going to Cronulla, he'd go into a team who would be genuine chances of winning again given they've got [Matt] Moylan, Pearce and Duges [Josh Dugan].
"Whatever team he goes to will improve.
"Manly could be top four with him, Newcastle top eight, and Cronulla definitely top four and looking to win."
Pearce has ties at most of his potential destinations. He played with Manly coach Trent Barrett at Origin level in 2010 and counts Curtis Sironen among his best mates. The 28-year-old is also close to several Sharks from their time playing together for NSW, while Brown was previously a part of the Blues' brains trust.
While most of his engagements with the Storm players have resulted in him being on the wrong end of the scoreboard, Melbourne would mount a strong premiership defence with Pearce in their side.