Ongoing salary-cap drama at the Cronulla Sharks could force star signing Shaun Johnson out the door, according to reports.
The Sharks have already lost premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan during an investigation into the club governance.
Sydney-based newspaper The Australian claims NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg has told management that the outcome of the probe may not be known until the end of February.
But in recent days, there has been increased speculation that the Sharks may face a significant penalty, including sanctions that would force them to shed players to fit under the cap.
Clubs with plenty of cap space left, including the NZ Warriors, are understood to be waiting eagerly to see what players become available.
If the Sharks don't sort things out before the start of the season, Johnson would have to sit, as he was the last player signed.
Otherwise, the former Warriors half, who is one of the highest-paid players at the club, could be forced back into the open market, with clubs like the Parramatta Eels and the Wests Tigers (and the Warriors) among the few with salary-cap space left this close to the start of the season.
Johnson signed a three-year deal with the Sharks in December after being released from the final year of his Warriors contract.
The report adds that interviews with players and staff were only completed this week, and the salary-cap issues at the Sharks are worse than first thought.
Cronulla have appointed former assistant coach John Morris to take over the team on a permanent basis
The Sharks first came under scrutiny last August, after potential third-party breaches were uncovered during a club-initiated governance review.
They have been pushing the NRL for a final verdict, as they have yet to secure a major sponsor for the season that kicks off in a month.
Rugby league website Zero Tackle says fullback Matt Moylan, five-eighth Chad Townsend and forward Wade Graham are all earning more than $500,000 a season.