Union man? ... Israel Folau. Photo: Getty Images
NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert's approval of a deal for Israel Folau to join Parramatta next season came too late for the Eels after the former AFL convert turned his back on the club - although there was confusion on Friday night about whether he had accepted a lucrative rugby union offer.
After weeks of protracted negotiations between the Eels and the NRL, Fairfax understands that Schubert had agreed on Wednesday to register a contract for Folau if he accepted a $3 million, four-year deal tabled by the club.
It has also been revealed that NRL interim chief executive Shane Mattiske had met representatives of Folau before his decision to quit AFL and Mattiske has since been helping the Eels to address salary cap issues. However, the 23-year-old former Test and Origin star stunned Parramatta coach Ricky Stuart and other Eels officials on Friday when his management told them he had decided to accept a bigger offer in rugby union, believed to be a wealthy French club.
''I don't know where he is going and I don't care,'' one frustrated Parramatta official said. ''It is just so disappointing.''
Bizarrely, Folau's management later told Mattiske he had not yet decided his future, and the NRL delayed issuing a press release.
''Israel's management is yet to confirm that he is definitely not returning to the NRL next season,'' Mattiske said.
The Eels do not blame the NRL, despite Schubert's refusal to allow Parramatta to fit Folau into the salary cap for the $110,000 they had left before his decision to quit Greater Western Sydney on November 1 with two years remaining on his $1.5 million a season contract.
With Schubert having approved the deal, Eels chief executive Ken Edwards, Stuart and recruitment manager Peter Nolan told a members' forum at Parramatta Stadium on Thursday night they were hopeful of announcing his signing soon.
''This has come as something of a surprise to us today,'' Edwards said. ''Our offer to Israel was unconditional. We have worked closely with the NRL and have always been confident that salary cap issues would be resolved.''
Mattiske was also clearly surprised by the news and said on Friday night: ''We had been working to assist Parramatta through this process and we understand that Parramatta were able to make Israel an offer that was within the salary cap.''
Earlier, Mattiske told reporters after a meeting with a delegation from the Rugby League Players' Association over the collective bargaining agreement, that he expected Folau to play NRL next season.
Parramatta stars Jarryd Hayne and Tim Mannah, who were part of a players' association delegation, also appeared unaware after the meeting that Folau had advised the Eels he would not be playing for the club. It is understood that the NRL put a proposal to the players' association delegation for the salary cap to increase to $5.1 million in 2013, plus $400,000 in marquee player allowances.
The offer represented a total increase of $200,000 on the $5 million cap that the NRL and clubs had previously agreed and would have helped the Eels to accommodate Folau, possibly without being forced to shed other players.
''We are very focused on getting this deal done with the players' association and that is very important to us, and we are also very keen to see a player like Israel Folau come back,'' Mattiske said. ''He is obviously a talented individual and we are very keen to see talented players in our game.''
Edwards said the Eels were satisfied with the squad Stuart would have to work with next season and believed Folau's decision vindicated the club's refusal to allow 2014 signing Will Hopoate to have a stint in Japanese rugby union after he completes his Mormon mission next November.
''It is disappointing that Izzie at this stage has chosen to pursue another path but we've also been clear that we are about having players who are focused on what we are trying to achieve as a club,'' Edwards said.
''It is why we had previously ruled out short-term appearances with other codes. We are comfortable with our current playing roster ahead of the 2013 season.''