‘Out of the blue’: Panthers legend ‘shocked’ by James Fisher-Harris transfer news

Penrith legend Greg Alexander says he was completely “shocked” by James Fisher-Harris’ request to return to New Zealand but the Panthers never considered denying his move to the Warriors.

In bombshell transfer news on Wednesday, the Panthers announced they had granted Fisher-Harris a release from his contract on compassionate grounds despite having two years left on his deal.

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The Kiwi captain and 2023 Golden Boot winner has signed with the New Zealand Warriors on a four-year-deal. Fisher-Harris finish this season with the reigning premiers before moving across the ditch.

The Panthers said in a statement Fisher-Harris approached the club this week about his request to walk away.

Speaking to news.com.au, Panthers great and current board member Alexander said Fisher-Harris’ request came “out of the blue” but club officials unanimously decided they wouldn’t stand in his way.

Asked for his initial reaction, Alexander said: “Shocked, I wasn’t expecting it.

“No one said no. I guess after recovering from the shock, there was no one at board level or through management or coaching who thought they would deny him that release.

“Once everything settled down and everyone got their heads around the request, it was unanimous really, in saying that James has been a great player for us, this is what he wants to do, no one said anything.

“Not happy to … but sure, let’s let him really do what he wants to do.

“Of course I would (have liked Fisher-Harris to stay). That’s unanimous as well.”

Fisher-Harris’ impending exit comes with a bitter taste of double irony for the Panthers.

His request came too late to facilitate a player swap with Warriors forward Addin Fonua-Blake, who is joining Cronulla next year after also being granted an early release on compassionate grounds.

“This one’s a bit usual,” Alexander said.

‘It doesn’t happen that often. The players we’ve lost in the past (has been due to) salary cap pressure, but not James.”

Another tough pill to swallow is the fact Fisher-Harris could help take the Warriors from top four fancies to premiership favourites in 2025 providing veteran halfback Shaun Johnson stays healthy.

The Warriors have recovered from losing Reece Walsh by recruiting Johnson, ex-Panther and Bronco Kurt Capewell, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Te Maire Martin, Luke Metcalf and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad among others in recent years.

“They’ll be competition favourites next year,” Paul Kent predicted on Wednesday’s NRL 360.

One man who has been floated as a possible Fisher-Harris replacement is 23-year-old Wests Tigers prop Stefano Utoikamanu, who comes off contract at the end of 2025.

“The money freed up by James leaving will allow Penrith to buy a front rower,” Alexander said.

“I don’t know exactly which way we’ll go in terms of recruitment. I know Stefano’s name has been put forward. I don’t know how many players are off contract too at the end of this year. That’s an important part too.

“Having not sat down with the recruitment team and nutted out exactly which way we’re going, it’s too hard to read into the future.

“We’ve got some very good young front rowers playing in the NSW Cup. (But) I don’t think we’re asking them to step up.”

Penrith will likely retain their spine of Nathan Cleary, Dylan Edwards and Isaah Yeo longterm, but the loss of the backbone of their fearsome forward pack could tip their dynasty over the edge.

The Panthers have lost a litany of players due to salary cap pressures but Alexander is bullish they can remain contenders despite fears Fisher-Harris’ departure signals the end of Penrith’s premiership reign.

“I don’t see why the end is near for this Penrith team with the players they’ve still got in their line-up,” said Alexander, who played in Penrith’s first premiership in 1991.

“Although it has been picked apart over the past few seasons, I still think there’s enough talent in the side to still be very strong.

“Whether that means winning comps or not, that’s too hard to judge at this stage. I can still see Penrith being strong over the next few years. I don’t think this is the death knell of the Panthers.”

Alexander said the loss of Fisher-Harris and Jarome Luai, who signed a long-term deal with the Tigers starting next year, was “pretty big”.

“They’ve both been pivotal in what Penrith have done over the last four years,” he said.

“The premiership wins, but also the culture that’s been driven out there, they’ve been pretty important in that. I think a club’s only as good as its senior players.

“It’s a great bunch of senior players. Not only will they be missed on the field, they’ll be missed in general.

“They’re pretty special personalities. Jarome different than Fish, but both vital cogs in what’s happened on and off the field in Penrith.”

Catch the Panthers take on the Tigers on Saturday live and ad-break free during play on Kayo Sports.