Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Lonesome Wulf heading for door

After bailing out of his contract a season early in France last year, Rudi Wulf is doing the same to the Blues. Photo / Getty Images
After bailing out of his contract a season early in France last year, Rudi Wulf is doing the same to the Blues. Photo / Getty Images

An unsettled former All Black will return to France, cutting short his two-year Blues contract 12 months early, writes Gregor Paul.

The Mexican stand-off between Rudi Wulf and the New Zealand Rugby Union has ended and the former All Black wing is now free to quit the Blues and rejoin Toulon.

Wulf will play for North Harbour and is then expected to return to France - walking out on his two-year Blues contract 12 months early after, almost bizarrely, coming home in June last year having been granted permission to terminate his Toulon contract a year early.

The past few weeks have been tense and sometimes heated, as the national body was reluctant to grant the early release. The NZRU were conscious of the precedent it would set. Wulf returned to New Zealand last June and announced himself ready to settle here again after his ill-fated French venture. To let him go would send signals that contracts were there to be broken; that it was easy to clear obstacles that had little grip or substance for anyone determined to try to break them.

Understanding the background is key to understanding why the NZRU finally granted Wulf's release. He left for France in July 2010 - and again confusion was paramount. Wulf announced one week he had committed to Harbour for two years, only to reveal the next that he was in fact joining Toulon. The French giants had wanted Joe Rokocoko and, when they couldn't get him and Wulf learned that his All Black chances were remote, a deal was done to take him offshore.

But, after just six months, his partner (now ex-partner) and son failed to settle and they came back to New Zealand. At the end of the 2010-11 season, Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal reluctantly agreed to release Wulf on compassionate grounds - the 28-year-old missed his son and wanted to be closer to him.

He came back to the Blues and, although injury curtailed his involvement, he was one of the few consistent performers. He was solid under the high ball, strong in the tackle, versatile, generally aware and his experience and reliability were qualities that the franchise desperately needed.

Wulf was a keeper and yet, by the end of this year's campaign, he asked to be let out of his contract. Toulon wanted him back and he had struck up a new relationship with a girl in France.

New coach John Kirwan knew that Wulf was a player the franchise needed but also felt that there was no value in holding someone who clearly didn't want to be there. Kirwan needs to make a fresh start and needs his players to buy into his methods and culture - if Wulf wanted out, he could go.

Initially the NZRU weren't budging, though. They understood Kirwan's stance but, to their way of thinking, there was no compelling reason driving Wulf back to France.

If they allowed him to go, other players would suddenly be looking to be released early, holding Wulf as a precedent.

It was an impossible choice because just as much as they didn't want Wulf to leave, they also didn't want a Luke McAlister situation.

The former All Black went absent without leave last year when playing for Harbour - his antics designed to force an early release so he could begin his contract with Toulouse sooner.

Late last week, the NZRU concluded that the negatives of keeping Wulf outweighed the positives and he was granted permission to leave on the condition satisfactory compensation was paid.

It is expected that Wulf will agree to that and either Toulon, Wulf himself or a combination of the two will have to stump up what is likely to be one year's salary - possibly about $150,000 - to be able to escape in October.

The non-negotiable in the release was this season with Harbour. Wulf will be available and head coach Liam Barry is confident he will get a major campaign out of the former test wing.

"His experience will be critical for us," says Barry. "What's really impressive is the amount of work he does off the ball and we will certainly be looking for him to play a major role for us, especially with his leadership."

- Herald on Sunday

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