A PLAYER driven out of Australia by the Department of Immigration after he overstayed his visa has now sparked a major row between two of the NRL's proudest clubs.
Powerful Tongan Mal Kaufusi ? the man they dubbed Special K because of his sheer natural talent ? has been snatched from under the nose of the Manly Sea Eagles by the reigning premiers.
The Sydney Roosters clinched the two-year-deal late last night ? and the Sea Eagles are fuming.
Manly officials claim Kaufusi still owes the club a substantial amount of money and are adamant he will not be given a clearance until the money is repaid.
"Someone should give Mal a dictionary and tell him to look up the word 'loyalty'," thundered Sea Eagles football manager Peter Peters. "We went to a lot of trouble to help get Mal back into the country."
The Roosters say their charter is to sign quality players and not to be worried about how rival clubs react.
Kaufusi, 24, was told to leave Australia last November by the Department of Immigration after he breached his visa entitlements.
He went home to Tonga and Manly cancelled his contract. However, the Sea Eagles believe they still have the power to refuse a clearance.
Manly yesterday offered Kaufusi an incentive based contract but it was too late.
"Our former major sponsor, Sam Rahme, actually spent $2000 of his own money and also flew to Fiji on the club's behalf to talk to Australian immigration officials," said Peters.
"That accelerated his return, otherwise Mal would still be overseas for at least a few more years.
"Mal and his manager Sam Ayoub didn't have the courtesy of letting us know he had signed elsewhere.
"He was put in a shopping trolley while still in Tonga and shopped around to other clubs.
"That is an insult to our club.
"We're not dirty on the Roosters . . . we just feel for our supporters."
Player manager Ayoub said Manly had the opportunity to sign Kaufusi but let the chance pass.
"The player is off contract this month and is after a deal for the rest of this season," Ayoub said.
"Do Manly expect us to ignore interest from other clubs?
"Manly only offered an incentive based one-year deal and Mal had no option but to reject it."
Roosters chief executive Bernie Gurr said the club had signed Kaufusi on a small contract.
"I don't think Manly have a problem with the Roosters ? when players are on the open market and they are players we need, it is up to us to decide who we sign," Gurr said.
"If Manly have a problem with Mal or with Sam, it is up to them to sort it out with those two people."
Kaufusi has shed 15kg since being deported and will start training at 101kg.
He actually underwent a fitness test with Manly last week, but club trainer Des Hasler claimed Kaufusi would not be fit enough to play first grade for another seven weeks.
Kaufusi played 19 matches for the Northern Eagles last season.
He will add substantial depth to an already impressive Roosters squad who have started 2003 in the same vein of form as late last season, when they powered to the Telstra Premiership.