Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 June 2017

Who are the €400,000 men?

Ulster signings in good company at top of Irish earning pile

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Sports administrators rarely set the heart a flutter with their public utterings, but New Zealand rugby chief Steve Tew broke with the norm with his criticism of the IRFU and Ulster Rugby, which exposed the extent of the ambition at Ravenhill.

The World Cup may be something the rugby-mad Kiwis are looking forward to, but the post-tournament exodus is vexing those running the sport in the game'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 in a season that has seen 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 €1.25m that Toulon are dangling in front of Sonny Bill Williams, the €400,000 a season that John Afoa and Jared Payne are believed to be receiving when they arrive in Belfast next autumn represents a significant investment.

IRFU chief Philip Browne insisted that the union would not break their own wage structure to keep out-of-contract players at home, and Leinster's Ireland stars 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 thought to have turned down offers in the region of €500,000 from Top 14 clubs to stay on less money here.

The salaries of the top Irish internationals who stayed are, at best, on 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 par with the top South African recruits, but will come in well above what Ulster's top Irish stars Stephen Ferris -- a Lion -- and Rory Best -- who has captained his country -- are earning as part of 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.

So who are John Afoa and Jared Payne, and what sort of company are they keeping among the top earners in Irish rugby?

The €400,000 men

John Afoa

THE giant All Black prop has been drafted in as a like-for-like replacement for Springbok tighthead BJ Botha, who is leaving to join Munster after three seasons at Ravenhill.

Capped 30 times by his country, the 27-year-old made his international debut at Lansdowne Road in 2005. He won seven caps off the bench last year as the men in black claimed the Tri-Nations and a Grand Slam tour of Europe, and is expected to feature in Graham Henry's World Cup squad.

Jared Payne

Afoa's clubmate at the Auckland Blues is a former New Zealand U-21 and schools international -- but not a full All Black -- and he joins Ulster at the age of 25.

Payne can fill the centre, wing or full-back positions and his form this season since making the move from Canterbury Crusaders has seen him mentioned as a potential bolter for the World Cup squad.

Ruan Pienaar

World Cup winner Pienaar joined Ulster at the end of last season and has been name-checked continuously whenever the Irish province's improvement is mentioned. Can play at scrum-half or out-half and his experience has lessened the load on Ian Humphreys alongside him.

Fellow Springboks Pedrie Wannenburg and Johann Muller are also on big money at Ravenhill.

Ireland's top earners

Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip

While the IRFU don't disclose their salaries, Ireland's captain and the man many consider to be his heir are thought to be the top earners in the Irish squad.

Both have turned down prospective moves abroad to stay at home and O'Driscoll is unlikely to play for another side at this stage of his career. Heaslip has expressed his desire to experience something new and is coveted in France, but the Ireland No 8 resisted the lure and signed up until 2014.

Irish Independent

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