Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said Canterbury's big-money pursuit of Viliame Kikau made it difficult to keep the Fijian powerhouse beyond next season but he expects him to stay on in 2022.
A photo of Kikau in Bulldogs colours next to Phil Gould and Trent Barrett emerged on Friday with the Panthers back-rower posting to Instagram later in the evening citing his displeasure at the leak.
Canterbury has launched an investigation into who posted the security camera screenshot online of Kikau posing in blue and white.
The Bulldogs are yet to formally confirm his signature from 2023.
Kikau didn't speak to media at the Panthers grand final celebration parade on Saturday but Cleary conceded the club was set to lose him to a big-money offer from the Bulldogs.
"We pretty much knew, emotionally you don’t want to accept it," Cleary said.
"Yesterday was sobering that the reality [set in]. What he has done is shored up his future for his family. He’s about to have his first child.
"When you get those sorts of numbers thrown at you, you'd be mad not to [take it].
"He wasn't happy [about the photo]. I spoke to him last night and he was very angry about it to be honest, which is fair enough.
"It's tough because you're only in the game for so long. It's a balancing act. One thing that is for sure is all the guys who have left or are leaving, ideally they would have liked to stay. You can’t keep them all."
Cleary, however, was adamant Kikau will remain at the Panthers in 2022.
"He's committed to us," Cleary said.
"We have a whole season with Vili and that’s all we're looking forward to.
"He'll be back in a couple of weeks and you can get a lot done in one year. We showed that with ‘Burto’ [Matt Burton] last year."
Kikau's pending move to Belmore is the fifth premiership-winning player who is set to depart the club following their title win.
Cleary said the challenge for the club will be to manage their salary cap into the future.
"I guess for our team, the more successful we’ve been the harder it becomes to hang on to people," Cleary said.
"The last three years we’ve had something like 15 guys go on to sign the biggest contracts of their lives.
"We take a bit of pride in that. It’s a scramble and hard work trying to keep this team together."
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Meanwhile, Cleary said son Nathan was on track for a round one return against the Sea Eagles on March 10 but wouldn't be rushed.
"He's certainly around where he should be [with his recovery], maybe even a little bit ahead. There’s a bit of a road ahead for him," Cleary said.
"We’re hoping [round one]. It’s too early to say. He’s got a big year ahead of him. Everyone has a big year. We certainly won’t be rushing him.
"No doubt the sooner he can play the better. There will be a big crowd here in round one, so I’m sure he will want to play.
"We'll do what is best for his long-term benefit."