Charles Piutau: Ulster kitted out for new season glory
Ulster's newest superstar never considered turning his back on a big money deal to join the province - despite what he told the man who signed him.
When it was announced last April that Charles Piutau was on his way to the Kingspan Stadium, the coup received much fanfare even though the 16-times capped All Black couldn't join until this summer thanks to IRFU limits on non-Irish qualified players.
Unable to continue for his previous employers, the Blues in Super Rugby, the 24-year-old had to seek a solution elsewhere and eventually ended up playing the season for free-spending Wasps.
With every stand-out performance in Coventry - Piutau beat more defenders and gained more metres than any other player in last season's Champions Cup - rumours spread that Wasps owner Derek Richardson would attempt to break the bank and secure the player on a permanent basis.
Piutau, however, had no intention of reneging on the contract with Ulster.
"I guess on social media, having the fans already know I was committed here, they'd shown their excitement and then coming to another team beforehand had its challenges for them," he said.
"I think for me what really helped was just taking one season at a time but you could feel the expectation (from fans here and at Wasps). I just had to make it clear that I was always still coming here. That kept them happy!"
He could not, however, help himself from having a bit of fun with the situation and his new boss Bryn Cunningham. While speculation raged around him, Piutau sent Ulster's Operations Manager a text to say how he was loving his time in Coventry and was considering a change of heart. While just how long the native Aucklander let Cunningham panic before revealing the prank is between the two of them, Piutau says he can now, at least, see the funny side.
Talking more on the Ulster centurion's role in his recruitment, Piutau is full of praise, just like fellow big name addition Marcell Coetzee.
"For sure, talking to Bryn Cunningham, he gave me a run down of how good a place this was to be a part of. He wanted to take this club to the next level and that caught my attention. The club kind of knew what they wanted and went out and got it. Not just for me but all the players are excited to have Marcell on board," said Piutau.
"It's a credit to what people think of this club, having maybe myself and Marcell and a few others recruited, we saw this club's potential and where it can go."
While the move made him one of the best paid rugby players in the world, he sacrificed plenty to be here, a likely World Cup winners medal last Autumn and a possible battle with the Lions next summer, but the most difficult decision of his career was aided by advice from two of Ulster's most popular former Kiwis - Nick Williams and John Afoa.
"I think it was really tough. It was one of the hardest things in my career. Looking on the positive side it really pushes me to get better and not get complacent. Hopefully I will play my best years here," he said.
"I talked to a few of the Kiwis who had been here, John Afoa and Nick Williams. I was just happy that those guys told me what their experiences were."
Already he seems to have settled in well on and off the pitch, joking that, given the depth in Ulster's backline, his first training session left him pondering why he had been signed at all.
"I came in and then I was thinking why am I here?" he laughed. "There are some really good players here. Teams and clubs need depth and you never know, a few injuries could just change everything, but the talent here is unreal.
"In the back three there are a lot of international players, a good mix of experience and young players, and some of the young players have already played 100 games or more. They certainly have the right ingredients here to take that next step.
"Settling in has been a lot easier because it's a great bunch of guys. The biggest difference has been coming to a smaller city. I have grown up in Auckland and then when I was with Wasps they are based in London which is a big city too.
"I'm dealing with the accent okay... some better than others. I just hope I can understand them on the field which is the main thing."
The first chance to find out will likely come on Saturday when Ulster travel to Sandy Park for a friendly with Exeter.
"There are always nerves and you always want to get that first game out of the way," he added. "It has been a long time coming, especially with all the things in between, before coming here to finally do it.
"There's a sense of that expectation but as rugby players there's always pressure and the way I see it, that's exciting. It's a good challenge for me and it helps me perform and get better. I'm looking forward to it."
After 16 months, he won't be the only one.