Sports administrators rarely set the heart a flutter with their public utterings, but New Zealand rugby chief Steve Tew last night broke with the norm with his criticism of the IRFU and Ulster Rugby that exposed the extent of the level of ambition at Ravenhill.
The World Cup may be something the rugby-mad nation are looking forward to, but the post-tournament exodus is vexing the minds of those running the game in the sport’s spiritual home.
Already the big French clubs have been snapping up All Blacks like they are going out of fashion and although Tew claims the IRFU were complaining about the Top 14 pricing them out of the market, it seems they are getting in on the act themselves with Ulster leading the way.
Already paying top dollar for Springboks Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar, Brian McLaughlin's eye has turned towards the Land of the Long White Cloud as he looks to build on his squad's improvement this season that saw them reach the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 12 years.
It means Ulster can be counted as perhaps the biggest spenders in Irish rugby and while they are stopping well short of the reported £1.1m that Toulon are dangling in front of Sonny Bill Williams, the £350,000 a season that John Afoa and Jared Payne are believed to be receiving represents a huge Ulster investment.
“The disappointing thing is that if the numbers we are led to believe that have been put on the table by Ulster, and therefore the Irish Rugby Union, are accurate, it is a shame,” said Tew.
“The Irish are certainly one union we have talked to previously about the way the French system corrupts the market. Now the Irish are out-pricing us.”
IRFU chief Philip Browne insisted the union would not break their own wage structure to keep out of contract players at home and Ireland and Leinster stars like Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip resisted the lure of big money moves to France earlier this year.
Although the union do not disclose details of their wages, Kearney and Sexton are believed to have turned down offers in the region of £438,000 from Top 14 clubs to stay on less money.
The top Irish internationals who stayed are, at best, on a par with Ulster's new signings, although domestic players can avail of generous tax breaks.
Afoa and Payne's reported salaries will put them at least on a par with the top South African recruits, but will come in well above what top Irish stars Stephen Ferris — a Lion — and Rory Best, who has captained his country, are earning as part their centralised contracts with the union.
The New Zealand duo are hardly household names, but they will automatically go into the top bracket of earners in Irish rugby when they meet up with their new team-mates next season.