1 down, 3 to go for Panthers

The first of four prize signatures was ticked off the Penrith retention roster when Luke Lewis agreed to a three-year deal until the end of 2008.

But the struggle to maintain the nucleus of the 2003 premiers is a long way from over with Panthers officials still deep in negotiations with captain Craig Gower, Tony Puletua and Preston Campbell.

Immediately after sealing the agreement with Lewis, Penrith general manager of rugby league Mick Leary signalled his intention to have the talented trio signed to new contracts within the next month.

All three are off contract with the Panthers at the end of 2005 with captain Gower considering a million-dollar offer to link with English club Salford.

Despite the Panthers being unable to compete with the lucrative overseas deal, both Leary and coach John Lang remain cautiously confident the current Australian halfback will remain at Penrith.

"It's no secret we're in negotiations with Craig Gower, Tony Puletua and Preston Campbell," Leary said.

"We hope to hear back from their managers in the very near future. Obviously Craig has another offer and undoubtedly they would be having discussions about it.

"But I'm still quietly confident Craig would like to stay.

"There are still a few more things for him to accomplish in Australia.

"He's a very high priority for us. We want him as captain for the next three years."

Gower toured Salford's home ground and training complex on the Kangaroo Tour in November and has said he would consider the Super League offer.

The Panthers are hoping to tie Gower and Puletua to three-year deals until the end of 2008 and Campbell to a two-year deal.

The retention of Lewis, a NSW and Australian representative, provides the club with a major boost for the next four seasons.

The gifted back has undergone a reconstruction on his left shoulder during the off-season and has been back in full training for the last three weeks.

"It's awesome to be able to stay with the club I grew up with," Lewis said.

"I couldn't be happier and I can't really see myself ever wanting to leave Penrith. I want to win more premierships here."

Lewis will miss the Panthers' two trial matches against Newcastle and Sydney Roosters but is hopeful of being available for the season opener.

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