All Blacks star Charles Piutau: I can't wait to get stuck in with Ulster
Ulster have stunned world rugby by swooping to sign All Blacks full-back Charles Piutau on a reputed €700,000-per-annum two-year contract despite the world champions' desperation to keep him at home.
The 23-year-old is an outstanding talent who can play anywhere in the back-line, and the news of his capture will alleviate the desperate misfortune that has seen talented centre Stuart Olding ruled out for nine months with injury.
Despite having a surfeit of home-grown back-line talent and being weak in other areas, the signing is still a significant statement of intent for the province and the first real indication of new team manager Bryn Cunningham's prowess in the transfer market.
Currently competing for a back-three place in the All Blacks' line-up along with Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane and Israel Dagg, Piutau could pay for his international place after deciding to cash in on his undoubted talent.
The 23 year-old, who can play at fullback, wing, or in the centre, will arrive at Kingspan Stadium on July 1, 2016.
Commenting on signing for Ulster Rugby, Charles said: “It was a difficult decision to leave the Blues and New Zealand rugby as I have really enjoyed my time with them so far. However, when I spoke with Ulster I was impressed with what they had to say and I am excited about their future plans.
“I am looking forward to moving to Belfast, experiencing a new culture and playing in the northern hemisphere. I can’t wait to get stuck in with my new teammates in July 2016.”
Ulster Rugby’s team manager, Bryn Cunningham, says the signing is an indication of the ambition at the province: “To secure someone of Charles’ ability is hugely exciting for us as it shows that the best players want to come and represent Ulster Rugby and that the province can attract world-class talent.
“Our aim is to produce local players with the ability to play for Ulster and Ireland and then supplement them with top-quality internationals. Charles, with his experience with the All Blacks, fits perfectly in that model.
“As he has shown for both the Blues and New Zealand, he has searing pace and great feet. He has an exceptional offloading game and he is rock-solid in defence. He also possesses leadership qualities and maturity beyond his years and that came across strongly in my conversations with him.
“We could not ask for a more rounded, professional person and I believe that he will add enormous value to our squad both on and off the pitch.”
Piutau was part of the 2011 Junior World Championship-winning U-20 team - he was the team's top try-scorer - and he also starred for the All Blacks Sevens team that won the World Series in 2011/12.
He has scored four tries in his 14 All Black appearances but he has had an unhappy beginning to his campaign with John Kirwan's Blues side.
His expected salary at Ulster would make him the province's highest-paid player, ahead of Ruan Pienaar, who is believed to be on around €550,000 per year - and there may be speculation surrounding the future of the Springbok scrum-half, whose contract ends in 2017.
The All Blacks have long been resigned to losing a raft of players following this autumn's World Cup in England in what has become a familiar trend due to the relative strength of the rugby economy in the northern hemisphere.
Carter, who is slated to join Ronan O'Gara at Racing Metro on a cool salary of €1m, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have all confirmed they will play club rugby in France after the tournament.
In previous years, New Zealand have had to absorb the loss of established stars, an example being back-row Jerome Kaino, who enjoyed a lucrative spell in Japan between World Cups before returning home in time for this year's tournament.
However, sources close to Hansen and the NZ RFU have expressed surprise that one of the country's brightest stars, around whom New Zealand were expected to base their 2017 Lions tour strategy, should decide to move abroad at this stage.
Ulster will have to off-load one of their current overseas stars to adhere to IRFU guidelines on non-Irish qualified quotas, and back-rower Nick Williams is likely to have moved on by the time Piutau arrives.
Louis Ludik is already a non-qualified full-back so there may be questions about the policy underpinning such a signing, especially if under-written by the IRFU and given the dearth of quality in other areas of the Ulster squad, particularly in the back-row.
While Ulster didn't address the reports of the audacious capture, they have confirmed that gifted young centre Stuart Olding suffered a knee injury in the bonus point win over Cardiff Blues at Kingspan Stadium last Friday night.
An MRI scan has confirmed that he has an ACL injury in his right knee. He will require a second surgery and will be out of rugby for up to nine months, hence missing the opportunity to push for a World Cup place.
Ulster also confirmed that Pienaar sustained a 'stinger' to his shoulder in the Cardiff match. He has suffered soft tissue bruising, but is expected to be available for Ulster's Pro12 match against Connacht.