Charles Piutau is to become the highest paid player in world rugby next year after Championship side Bristol smashed Premiership records by signing the former All Black on a sensational £1 million per season deal, Telegraph Sport can reveal.
Piutau, the utility back who won 16 caps for the All Blacks before joining Irish province Ulster via a dazzling season at Wasps, is to join the south west club at the start of the 2018/19 season having signed a two-year deal that will shock waves across English rugby.
Bristol saw off strong competition from leading clubs in France to secure the deal – well beyond Ulster’s financial means – and had to pay above the odds because of their current status outside of England’s top flight.
Bristol, who were relegated from the Premiership last season, had already set a new Premiership record by signing Piutau’s former Auckland Blues and All Blacks team-mate Steven Lautau this season on a deal understood to be worth £650,000 per season.
The Piatau deal however last night described by Pat Lam, Bristol’s new director of rugby, “one of the biggest coups in the club’s history” and underscores the south west club’s ambitions – bankrolled by billionaire owner Stephen Lansdown – to become not only the top force in England but also Europe.
Both players are understood to be signed as one of the two “marquee” players allowed by Premiership Rugby salary cap regulations, where the club can pay an unlimited salary to two designated players.
Piatau will remain with Ulster for the new season to see out his current contract before moving to England next year, when he will eclipse former All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter as the highest club player on the world stage.
Carter’s current deal with French Top 14 club Racing 92, which is thought to be around 1.2million euros per season, is due to expire at the end of the new season.
It is understood Piatau’s deal will still go through even if Bristol do not win promotion back to the Premiership at the end of the new season and he will join his brother Siale at his new club.
“I feel blessed to have been given the opportunities I have in rugby,” Piatau told Telegraph Sport.
“If I am able to play a central role in delivering the vision that Pat has outlined for Bristol, then the challenge of playing for this club will be an achievement that I will be able to look back on, with immense pride.
“Even more appealing, is the opportunity to do this along side my brother Siale, my best friend Steven (Lautau) and the rest of the squad that Bristol is putting together.
“Signing for Ulster was the start of my journey outside of New Zealand and I will forever be grateful for this opportunity. And as we enter an exciting new format in the Pro 14, my sole focus for this season will be to do whatever I can to make this a successful season for Ulster and its supporters.”
Ryan Constable, a director of Esportif International, the agency that struck the deal with Bristol, refused to comment on the figures of the deal but admitted that rugby union was moving further towards a business model where players are signed not only to perform on the pitch but also boost the club’s profile and commercial value.
“Obviously it would be entirely inappropriate to comment on the specifics of any individual contract negotiation but generally speaking, there is no doubt that we are seeing the emergence of an American style “franchise player” phenomenon in rugby, where certain clubs are prepared to invest in particular players for more than just their playing attributes,” said Constable, the former Saracens and Ulster centre who was capped by Australia in 1994.
“These players are central to the commercial and community engagement programs of the clubs and their ability to attract supporters. We have seen evidence of significant spikes in both season ticket purchases and replica jersey sales following high profile announcements at European Clubs.
“The ‘excluded player’ dispensations from salary cap restrictions in the Aviva Premiership allow these English clubs to compete in the wider marketplace for this marquee talent which, would otherwise gravitate towards the French Top 14 or Japanese Top League due to their superior financial muscle.
“Let’s not forget, not only is there competition between clubs within their competition, there is also competition between competitions to attract the best talent. This impacts on TV audiences and therefore impacts broadcast revenue along with sponsorship opportunities and ticket sales.”
Piutau, who can play full back, wing or centre, made 23 appearances for Ulster and was their joint-top try scorer with nine tries last season and was named the Pro 12 players’ player of the season. During his spell with Wasps in 2016, Piutau was also nominated for the Aviva Premiership player of the season and was named in the team of the season.
“We’re thrilled to have an individual of his immense quality and experience to add to our ranks. As somebody who has worked with Charles previously, I know what an influential player he is on and off the field,” said Lam.
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