• Manu Tuilagi has agreed three-year deal worth more than £400,000 per year
  • Leicester tied centre down after a frenzy of speculation over his future
  • Next season the richest clubs’ potential wage bill will be nearly £10m

Sam Peters For Mail On Sunday

Premiership clubs fear Manu Tuilagi’s high-stakes contract negotiations following the salary cap hike will spark a wages war, with an elite group of international stars creaming off clubs’ budgets while other earnings flat-line.

Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty outlined new measures in October — with the salary cap set to increase by £1.5million over the next two seasons — aimed at preventing English clubs losing out to richer French and Japanese outfits.

With the average Premiership player salary still below £100,000, the news on Friday that England centre Tuilagi has finally agreed to stay at Leicester following an ‘obscene’ offer from Worcester — worth more than £1.5m over three years — has drawn the curtain on one of the richest deals in professional rugby union history.

Manu Tuilagi has agreed a new three-year deal with Leicester to make him one of the world’s best-paid players

The top earners in the Premiership during the 2016/17 season

The top earners in the Premiership during the 2016/17 season

Tuilagi, whose deal to stay at Leicester is understood to be worth more than £400,000 a year, can still lay claim to being among the Premiership’s biggest ever earners, after Sam Burgess’s brief spell at Bath netted him more than £600,000 during a 10-month stay.

One player’s agent told the Mail on Sunday this week: ‘The market has exploded since the salary cap announcement. When it comes to salaries, £300,000 is the new £200,000. Every out-of-contract player is aware of the extra allowance and the top boys are inevitably going to push their luck.’

With the recent World Cup and additional international fixtures crowbarred into an already packed schedule, Premiership directors want to use some of the extra funding to bolster their squads with additional players so that they can rest overstretched top stars.

But Wasps director of rugby Dai Young, who is keen to bring in Wales and British Lions star Leigh Halfpenny and retain out-of-contract James Haskell following heavy investment from businessman Derek Richardson, said: ‘When the salary cap goes up it always seems to swell the market. The same players want more money. The reality, which we really have to fight against, is that the salary cap has gone up for the last few years but squad sizes have stayed the same so more money is going to the same players.

‘The important thing for us now is to resist that. You’ve got to pay players what they’re worth, that’s obvious. But it’s important to have the right numbers in the squad and make sure you don’t overpay a small number of stars.’

The increase in the cap from next season will take the richest clubs’ potential wage bill close to £10m with provision for two marquee players outside the cap. And there is additional funding: homegrown players credits, set to rise to £600,000 over the next two seasons; a new England senior player allowance of up to £80,000 per person to cover absence through international duty on Premiership weekends; and a £400,000 fund to cover long-term injuries.

Tuilagi was ejected from the England squad when he was found guilty of assault earlier this year

Tuilagi was ejected from the England squad when he was found guilty of assault earlier this year

The Leicester centre poses in this season's kit at a photoshoot, but he has been unable to play as of yet

The Leicester centre poses in this season’s kit at a photoshoot, but he has been unable to play as of yet

The rise in the salary cap is aimed at staving off approaches from wealthier French Top 14 clubs and Japanese outfits, while appeasing England stars bound by the RFU’s rigid policy of not selecting overseas-based players. There is, therefore, pressure on directors of rugby to blow their extra budget on top internationals.

While the figures are still a fraction of those seen in top-flight professional football, New Zealand World Cup winner Dan Carter will make his Racing Metro debut against Northampton in the European Champions Cup next Saturday after signing a deal worth £1.4m a year.

‘The French Top 14 is still a different league in every sense,’ another senior player agent said. ‘But the numbers now being talked about for the top players in England are starting to bear comparison.’

With England stars including Leicester’s Ben Youngs, heavily tipped to join Bath next season, agitating for salary increases, clubs are under pressure to resist simply spending the increased revenue on a small group of high-profile players. This week Harlequins announced club captain Danny Care has followed club and country team-mates Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw in signing a new deal tying him to the London club for the next three years.

Richard Cockerill bemoaned 'obscene offers' made by rival clubs for Leicester's star man in recent weeks

Richard Cockerill bemoaned ‘obscene offers’ made by rival clubs for Leicester’s star man in recent weeks

Each player’s contract is understood to be worth in excess of £1m over three years.

Saracens, who were cleared of alleged salary cap breeches in October after calling for the cap to be scrapped, are negotiating new contracts with a group of former academy stars who now form the backbone of their first team.

On Thursday, England hooker Jamie George agreed a new deal.

‘For us, the rise in the salary cap is important from the point of view of trying to retain what we’ve built,’ said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.

‘We’ve spent six years trying to build an in-house squad with some additions from the outside. These academy kids are now England players and they need to be paid the market value. That becomes more and more complex.’

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