Marquee player Charles Piutau will be leaving Ulster at the end of the forthcoming season after agreeing to join ex-Connacht coach Pat Lam's new employers Bristol Rugby on a two-year deal.
Ulster are believed to have explored the possibility of extending 25-year-old Piutau’s lucrative two-year contract at the Kingspan Stadium, but Championship side Bristol’s spending power won the day.
Though not a huge shock, the loss of Piutau next summer still represents a blow for the northern province who are already having to deal without the long-serving and now Montpellier-based Ruan Pienaar.
Piutau, who has played 16 times for the All Blacks, will return to England next year after having already played a high-profile season in the Aviva Premiership at Wasps prior to joining Ulster in summer 2016.
The Kiwi, who can operate at wing or full-back, played 23 games for Ulster in his first campaign with Les Kiss’s squad and scored nine tries in what proved to be a disappointing season for the province, with the side failing to make the Guinness Pro12 play-offs.
Bristol are currently in the English Championship after being relegated from the Premiership last season but Lam’s squad – including Piutau’s older brother Siale which could yet again see the pair reunited after playing together at Wasps – should be strong enough to bounce straight back into the big-time where Lam – who coached his new signing at Auckland Blues – intends to deploy Piutau in just over a year’s time.
“Charles’s signing for the 2018/19 season demonstrated that we have a long-term plan and structure in place,” said Lam of signing last season’s Pro12 Players’ Player of the Year.
“We’re thrilled to have an individual of his immense quality and experience to add to our ranks.”