When Jamie Soward said last year he would never play against the Dragons, the former NSW five-eighth was being completely sincere.
But the 2010 premiership winner wasn't counting on his beloved red-and-whites essentially turning their backs on him, leading Soward to sign a four-year deal with Penrith. Fairfax Media understands Soward, 28, grew tired of the prolonged negotiations at St George Illawarra, and was forced to look elsewhere to continue his NRL career.
Soward had wanted to commit to the club as early as last year but the process stalled. He informed teammates of his decision on Wednesday. Soward said he remained committed to finishing at the club on a positive note.
"This was definitely a big decision for me as I love the Dragons but, as I have always said, I needed to make a decision about what was in the best interests for me and my future," Soward said. "I am absolutely committed to the Dragons, my coach and teammates for the remainder of this season, and will enjoy every minute of the rest of the year."
Penrith had been searching for a playmaker of Soward's calibre to steer them around the park. They were willing to splash out big dollars for Johnathan Thurston, who admitted he was close to signing at Penrith before opting to re-sign with North Queensland.
As well as losing Soward, the Dragons also appear little chance of luring Todd Carney, with Sharks coach Shane Flanagan on Wednesday saying the club remained confident of keeping the five-eighth.
''We're confident we'll get something done in the next couple of days,'' he said of Carney's deal.
However, the Dragons are set to announce the signing of Raiders second-rower Joel Thompson on a $1.3 million, three-year deal.
Panthers general manager Phil Gould described Soward as a ''marquee signing'' for the Panthers. ''He is a tremendous talent, proven at the highest levels of our game. He also brings with him great experience and leadership qualities,'' Gould said.
Soward's departure puts the Dragons' recruitment plans in a precarious state. With Steve Price's tenure in question, the Dragons' chief executive Peter Doust and recruitment manager Craig Young are headhunting potential players, with Price taking a backseat in negotiations.
With Soward leaving and Nathan Fien likely to retire, the club is expected to receive some much-needed bolstering in their halves with England international Rangi Chase likely to join before St George Illawarra's next match against Sydney Roosters on Anzac Day.
The Dragons are unlikely to pursue controversial Canberra discard Josh Dugan.
The Dragons, under coach Nathan Brown, resurrected Soward's career when he joined the club midway through 2007 after being overlooked by Chris Anderson at Sydney Roosters.
Soward, who starred in the Dragons' 2010 premiership victory and played three State of Origin games for NSW that year, is the club's top scorer.
Teammate Trent Merrin, in camp with the Country team, said he was shocked by the news. ''He's a professional; every professional wants to do the best they can for themselves and for the team,'' Merrin said ''I'm happy for him because it's something he wants to do in his pathway. We have a job to do with the Dragons, and he's on board with that.''
The impending move capped a turbulent week for Soward, who was embroiled in an on-field verbal altercation with Wests Tigers hooker Robbie Farah before he kicked the winning field goal to hand St George Illawarra a much-needed one-point win.