NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert's approval of a deal for Israel Folau to join Parramatta next season has come too late, with the former AFL convert turning his back on a return to the code to take up a lucrative offer in rugby union.
After weeks of protracted negotiations between the Eels and the NRL, Fairfax Media 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 he told them he had decided to accept a bigger offer in rugby union, believed to be from a wealthy French club.
"I don't know where he is going and I don't care," one frustrated Parramatta official told Fairfax Media. "It is just so disappointing."
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 per 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 stunned by the decision and told media after a meeting with a delegation from the Rugby League Professionals Association over the collective bargaining agreement he was confident Folau would play in the NRL next season.
It is understood that the NRL put a proposal to the RLPA delegation, which included Parramatta stars Jarryd Hayne and Tim Mannah, for the salary cap to increase to $5.1 million in 2013, plus $400,000 in marquee player allowances.
The offer represented an increase of $200,000 on the $5 million cap that the NRL and clubs had previously agreed on 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."
Mattiske later said he was satisfied the NRL and the Eels had done everything possible to enable Folau to return to the game next season.
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."