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It's time to show what Ulster are made of, says Piutau

Star winger is out to ensure his first season doesn't end with a whimper as Ulster prepare to storm the Thomond Park fortress

By Jonathan Bradley

With Ulster running the risk of seeing their play-off hopes go up in smoke away to Munster tomorrow (3pm kick-off), it's easy to forget the degree of optimism that surrounded this team before a tackle was made in anger.

The Brooklyn Dodgers of 1940s and '50s baseball were the original 'wait until next year' team, and there has been an element of that around Kingspan Stadium ever since players like Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller started arriving some seven years ago to haul the side out of their post-2006 doldrums and into the business end of both domestic and European competitions.

The revolution kick-started by then Director of Rugby David Humphreys has failed to bring the hoped for titles to date, but there seemed something different about the expectations for this side.

With a full pre-season under Les Kiss, who had arrived only in October the previous year, it was believed that a more settled coaching set-up would bear fruit.

Meanwhile, the cadre of indigenous talent who it was always thought only had to learn how to win the big games before silverware would regularly arrive, were to be supplemented by two superstars from the south.

Marcell Coetzee's arrival with a knee injury tempered some of that enthusiasm but, having watched the devastating Charles Piutau in action for the Blues, All Blacks and Wasps in the 18 months between his signing and first Belfast touchdown, it was clear manager Bryn Cunningham had secured a special talent.

As so often is the case with the best laid plans, things haven't quite transpired as hoped, whether it be Coetzee being limited to just four games, the news that this would be the talismanic Pienaar's final season in Ulster white, or that settled coaching ticket looking considerably less so as the season reached its mid-way point.

As advertised though, has been Piutau, whose talent has shone brightly from day one.

Now, with his first season at the province in genuine danger of ending without a single knock-out game, he admits his high profile billing in the squad means there is an even greater weight on his shoulders to help deliver what is now an unlikely play-off berth.

With the trip to Munster the start of a sprint to the finish that also sees Kiss's men face Ospreys and Leinster, Piutau is under no illusions with regards to the size of the task.

"You find out through these times what teams are made of," said the 25-year-old.

"The character of the team, hopefully we get to prove it to ourselves and show to everyone what we can do.

"Personally, the expectation is always there.

"It's all about wanting to win, win every game and win championships.

"It's always wanting to be the best I can be and helping the team to do the same.

"There has been a lift in intensity and everyone is more excited, taking on this challenge and preparing as best as we can to put on our best performance come Saturday."

With both Scarlets and Ospreys, who incidentally meet on the final day, also having designs on the two contestable play-off places, Ulster dare not lose to their interpro rivals for what would be a fifth time in six games, but Piutau thinks that the intimidating atmosphere of Thomond Park will bring the best out of the side.

Ahead of his first trip to the legendary Limerick venue, he couldn't hide his excitement.

"I've heard a lot about it and seen a lot from the TV," he said. "It looks like an awesome place to play rugby in, and I'm excited to get the opportunity to play there.

"I feed off that noise and atmosphere. For me, it's almost as if they are cheering for me although I know they're cheering against me.

"That's the way I've always seen playing against hostile crowds at away games.

"In the derbies, I think just in terms of the atmosphere and the crowds, you know that wherever you are playing everyone wants to get one up on their neighbours.

"Even on the field, a lot of the guys know each other so that always is interesting.

"We've been working hard on our structures and stuff this week, but it's down to our passion and desire to give everything we can.

"It will have to be the best we will put out this season."

Fail to do so, and another frustrating summer stretches ahead.

Belfast Telegraph

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