LUKE Lewis has been sensationally dumped as Panthers captain in favour of hooker Kevin Kingston for today's clash against premiers Manly.
In his biggest gamble since taking the reins at Penrith this season, coach Ivan Cleary has opted for Kingston to lead the side until Lewis completes his NSW Origin commitments in Round 19.
Whether Lewis accepts the captaincy back remains to be seen, with the stunned 28-year-old last night declaring: "I've got a lot of thinking to do."
The Sunday Telegraph can reveal Cleary dropped the bombshell yesterday morning, when Lewis made his first appearance at Centrebet Stadium since exiting Blues camp.
Having previously described the captaincy as "the biggest honour" of his career, the 12-Test veteran was devastated.
The conversation unfolded within earshot of several teammates, including fullback Lachlan Coote and prop Dayne Weston, and the news quickly spread.
Lewis confirmed the news when contacted last night but could not predict if he would accept the captaincy back after Origin.
"I can't really say too much at the moment," he said. "I've got a lot of thinking to do."
While the 'c' appeared alongside Lewis's name on this week's team sheet, Kingston has been told to attend the coin toss, speak with referees and front the post-match media conference this afternoon.
It's understood Cleary feels Lewis's club form might suffer with added responsibility during the Origin period.
The coach also wants a consistent captain for the gruelling eight-week stretch, with Kingston deputising in Lewis's absence last week.
And it's not the first time Cleary has made a difficult and controversial leadership call.
While coaching New Zealand in 2010, Cleary stripped statesman Steve Price of the captaincy and handed the honour to Simon Mannering.
That decision proved a masterstroke after Mannering led the Warriors to last year's grand final.
But with Penrith enduring a difficult and uncertain rebuilding phase amid extreme salary cap pressure, Lewis's demotion proves the club's shake-up is far from over.
Fellow Origin star Michael Jennings was axed to reserve grade two weeks ago, and point-scoring ace Michael Gordon is seeking a mid-season release to Cronulla after signing with the Sharks next year.
Lewis is contracted until the end of 2014, setting the Blacktown junior to join a rapidly shrinking modern day band of one-club players.
He was strongly expected to assume the captaincy from Petero Civoniceva, but coach Cleary waited until the eleventh hour before making it official in February.
"It's definitely the biggest honour," Lewis said at the time of the decision.