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All Black Charles Piutau is pitched into a fiery Ulster debut against Newport Gwent Dragons

By Michael Sadlier

Published 14/07/2016

All set: Charles Piutau, pictured with Ulster Rugby’s Bryn Cunningham will make his debut against Dragons
All set: Charles Piutau, pictured with Ulster Rugby’s Bryn Cunningham will make his debut against Dragons

Star signing Charles Piutau should be in line to make his competitive bow for Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium as yesterday's announcement of the Guinness PRO12 fixtures sees Les Kiss's men kick-off their campaign by hosting Newport Gwent Dragons on Friday, September 2.

The All Black will be hoping to make an immediate impression on both his new employers and the Kingspan crowd as Ulster begin another chase for league silverware after missing out again last season which, rather awkwardly, marked a decade since the province last got their hands on the title.

The forthcoming season will also be Kiss's first full term in charge, since taking the reins after fulfilling his Ireland duties at last autumn's World Cup, so the Australian will also be hugely keen to push Ulster on towards finally grabbing a trophy again after he oversaw last May's semi-final exit at Leinster.

Fundamental to Ulster's lengthy wait for success will be improving on their finishing position in the league table with a top two place - and key home semi-final - now seemingly central to any club's ambition for league silverware. Ulster have finished in fourth place for the last three seasons before disappointingly bowing out after travelling for the semi-final stages.

The notable signings of exciting back Piutau and South African back rower Marcell Coetzee, currently injured, have been made as much with a view to ending Ulster's miserable run in the league as also trying to make an impression in Europe.

So finishing first or second seems imperative as will avoiding costly trip-up defeats at home which did so much damage last term when Munster and the Scarlets made off with narrow victories.

Yesterday's announcement of the PRO12 fixture list sees Ulster play 10 times - eight league games and their opening two European rounds - before breaking for a fortnight's downtime due to November's international schedule.

After hosting the Dragons, first up, Kiss's squad travel to Treviso before finishing September by taking on the Scarlets in Belfast and 2015's league champions Glasgow away and, with Sunday league games now all but gone, there should at least be no issues regarding tight turnarounds.

Ulster's first interprovincial clash - this season the league have designated six 'Big Weekends' which are made up of a series of intra-union derbies - is on Friday, October 7 when they travel to meet reigning PRO12 champions Connacht at the Sportsground. After the two opening rounds of European action, Munster then come to Belfast for another of the Big Weekends on Friday, October 28 when the PRO12 resumes.

Ulster meet Connacht for their return game over the festive period and play them on Friday, December 23 ahead of a New Year's Eve clash against Leinster at the dreaded RDS (kick-off 3.00pm).

As usual, the run-in towards the semi-finals looks particularly challenging with the last three weekends of round-robin action taking Ulster to Munster and the Ospreys before they finish off with what could be another summit meeting with old rivals Leinster at the Kingspan on Saturday, May 6 with a 5.15 kick-off.

Earlier, over the Six Nations period, Kiss's squad will be plotting victories against Edinburgh at home and Zebre away on weekends which directly clash with Ireland games with the PRO12 dates yet to be confirmed on the weekends of February 10 and 24 respectively.

Ulster fixture list: Fri Sep 2, Dragons (h); Sat Sep 10, Treviso (a); Fri Sep 16, Scarlets (h); Fri Sep 23, Glasgow (a); Sat Oct 1, Ospreys (h); Fri Oct 7, Connacht (a); Fri Oct 28, Munster (h); Fri Nov 4, Edinburgh (a), Fri Nov 25, Zebre (h), Sat Dec 3, Cardiff (a), Fri Dec 23, Connacht (h); Sat Dec 31, Leinster (a); Fri Jan 6, Scarlets (a); And on dates yet to be confirmed: Weekend of Feb 10, Edinburgh (h), Wkend of Feb 17, Glasgow (h); Wkend of Feb 24, Zebre (a); Wkend of March 3, Treviso (h); Wkend of Mar 24, Dragons (a); Wkend of April 7, Cardiff (h); Wkend of April 14, Munster (a); Wkend of April 28, Ospreys (a); Sat May 6, Leinster (h); semi-finals Wkend of May 19 and final on Sat May 27.

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