St George Illawarra captain Gareth Widdop has shocked club officials by asking for a release from his contract.
Widdop is contracted to the Red V for the next three seasons on a deal worth about $1 million per year.
However, Fairfax Media can reveal he has approached the Dragons hierarchy about immediately cutting ties, citing homesickness and a desire to return to England.
The request caught the club hierarchy completely off guard and threatens to throw pre-season preparations into turmoil.
As the joint-venture outfit’s inspirational skipper and playmaker, Widdop’s departure would create a huge void.
Given the lack of talent on the open market at this time of the season, he would be almost impossible to adequately replace.
St George Illawarra officials don’t want to keep anyone in their organisation against their will given the unsettling effect it would have on the team.
However, they are expected to reject Widdop’s request given his importance to their premiership hopes.
Widdop is only one season into his new halves combination with Ben Hunt but already it has paid dividends, the pair steering the Dragons into the second week of the finals.
Their partnership is expected to get better with experience, although the latest development could mean they have played together for the last time.
The Dragons are only just getting over the shock of having to put a line through main recruitment target, Jarryd Hayne. The two-time Dally M medallist was on the club’s radar until he was charged with aggravated sexual assault.
It means a backline already missing the retired Jason Nightingale and Cowboys signing Nene Macdonald is at least a marquee man short.
With Hayne out of the picture, the Dragons now face the prospect of also having to part company with arguably their most valuable player. It’s understood several Super Leagues clubs - Huddersfield among them - are watching the situation with interest.
Widdop grew up in Yorkshire, made his name at the Melbourne Storm and is one of the first picked in Wayne Bennett’s England team.
The 29-year-old has previously considered moving back to the United Kingdom to finish his career, but this is the first occasion he has applied for a release.
Widdop isn’t the only key Dragon with a clouded future. Coach Paul McGregor is also off contract at the end of next season, with powerbrokers to wait to see how the side begins its campaign before deciding whether to offer him an extension.
NSW forward Tariq Sims is also off contract, although he is expected to recommit to the club.
Widdop may not be the only marquee half on the move. Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson, already told he won’t be offered a new deal once his current one expires, has reportedly asked for a release from the final year of his contract.
It’s understood the Warriors aren’t budging at present but they too face the conundrum of having a star player who doesn’t want to be there.
If Johnson is granted a release, it could prompt the Dragons to more favourably consider Widdop’s application if the Kiwis No.7 is prepared to shift to the Sydney outfit.
Johnson took to social media on Tuesday to outline his position.
"I thought it's best I clear a couple things up regarding my situation at this stage with the Warriors," Johnson wrote. "Firstly, there is no contract for me to sign past 2019.
"Secondly if you saw the article that came out a few weeks back ... they said they are in no rush to re-sign me. Since then they have told me again at this stage they (won't) be offering me anything.
"That means I get to spread my wings and see what's out there so right now that's what I'm doing!".
The latest developments come just a day after David Klemmer was released from Canterbury to join Newcastle, while the Roosters releasing Dylan Napa to join the Bulldogs.