Ruan Pienaar irreplaceable to Ulster: Maurice Field
Ulster fans, who have drooled over their outstanding scrum-half Ruan Pienaar in the past three years, may have to get used to being without him.
Cash-stuffed Toulon, the winners of last season's Heineken Cup, are trying to woo the South African to the south of France.
Reports in L'Equipe, the much-respected French daily sports paper, say Toulon have made an offer to Pienaar whose Ravenhill contract expires next June. The suggestion is that he is being recruited to replace England's 2003 World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, who is retiring at the end of the season.
Former Ulster and Ireland centre Maurice Field told The Belfast Telegraph the European champions have wealth no Irish province could dream of matching, for which reason it would be remarkable if Ulster managed to hold onto the player.
According to Le Journal du Dimanche, Wilkinson's per-month pay this season is €56,000 (£48,155) – and because he is retiring that is a cut from last year's salary level. They are unlikely to be offering Pienaar less.
"Ruan Pienaar would be a massive loss, but unfortunately you're dealing with guys who are in the tier one playing budget which is between €20 and €25 million.Ulster are between €6 and €10 million, max, so there's not much you can do to compete, is there?" was Field's rhetorical question.
And there is a further sweetener for 29-year-old Pienaar (pictured) in the form of a number of his fellow-countrymen already at Toulon. Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana, Danie Rossouw, Joe van Niekerkare and Michael Claassens are on board.
Clearly money is not an issue. Five of European rugby's Top 10 earners are Toulon players so the Heineken Cup holders' pockets are deep.
If money is plentiful, so too is competition for places, not least at scrum-half where Frederic Michalak, Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Claassens already vye for the number nine shirt jersey at Stade Felix Mayol.
That is why it is believed the French envisage Pienaar taking over from Wilkinson at out-half, where he has played for the Springboks and for Ulster on occasions.
Field feels Toulon's offer will prove impossible for Pienaar to resist.
"These guys have pots of money.
"And then you look at the South Africans already there – guys he knows, who speak his language," he said.
"And playing in the sun in the glorious south of France? You don't really have to think about it too long, do you?
"Ulster can't compete with that sort of financial clout and those sort of extra attractions.
And warning of a possible knock-on effect, he added: "That's why this season is going to be such a defining one for Ulster because if they don't do anything within the European competition – that is, get to the final and win it – our stock in trade is going to drop dramatically and all the world-class players will go to the big clubs offering the big money.
"You can't blame them; at the end of the day it's their job and they have a very finite career so they've got to make as much as possible while they're able to.
"Even if there was parity in money terms, you'd then look at the add-ons – the coaching environment, the training environment and the relationship you have with the other players.
"But they're extras; at the end of the day it's your job so you go where the money is."
Were Pienaar to move, it would leave a wide gap in Ulster's ranks.
In 63 appearances for the province since joining from Natal Sharks he has scored 510 points, this despite having shared the goal-kicking duties with Paddy Jackson and, before him, Ian Humphreys.
"He would be a massive loss to Ulster because he is a world-class premier player," Field said.
"You saw it last season and the season before when he pulled Ulster wins out of the bag by himself, not only by his kicking prowess but his decision-making.
"That can't be taught – you just learn that as you go along. He makes it look effortless, he always has time when he has the ball in his hands.
"Pienaar puts in a good performance every time he plays and that's the thing about world-class players – they constantly produce a quality performance.
"Hopefully some of our younger players coming through will learn a great deal from training with him and watching him. And maybe that will be a positive effect.
"But could you replace him? I don't think you'd get another like him because we just don't have the sort of money that would take."