Ulster 22-26 Bordeaux-Begles: Ninth defeat in 13 games for Ulster
Ulster slumped to their ninth defeat in 13 games against Bordeaux-Begles at Kingspan Stadium to finish bottom of their Champions Cup pool.
Both sides scored three tries in the game - Ulster's coming through Andrew Trimble, Franco van der Merwe, Darren Cave - but two late penalties from the boot of substitute Simon Hickey proved the winning of the game.
The hosts launched one final attack but could not force their way over from a pair of late lineouts.
Les Kiss's men will have a two-week break before taking on Edinburgh in the PRO12 with the campaign in serious need of a winning result.
Ulster: Piutau, Bowe, Cave, McCloskey, Trimble, P. Jackson, Shanahan, Warwick, R. Best, Simpson, Diack, van der Merwe, Henderson, Henry, Reidy.
Replacements: Gilroy for Bowe (63), P. Marshall for Shanahan (41), Black for Warwick (70), Treadwell for Diack (46), C. Ross for van der Merwe (54). Not Used: Andrew, Lutton, Herron.
Bordeaux-Begles: Cros, Ducuing, Dubie, Vakacegu, Connor, Madigan, Lesgourgues, S. Kitshoff, Maynadier, Clerc, Palmer, Botha, Madaule, Goujon, Tauleigne.
Replacements: Rey for Vakacegu (59), Hickey for Madigan (59), Audy for Lesgourgues (51), Auzqui for Maynadier (60), Cobilas for Clerc (54), Chalmers for Tauleigne (69). Not Used: Taofifenua, Edwards.
Sin Bin: Cros (40).
Ref: Matthew Carley (RFU).
His performance in last weekend’s Champions Cup loss to Exeter was one that caused BT Sport commentator Nick Mullins to question whether Charles Piutau was of this planet, but platitudes in defeat mean little to Ulster’s All Black winger.
The two-try salvo, and a captivating battle with England counterpart Jack Nowell, was not enough to see this afternoon’s visit from Bordeaux-Begles (1pm kick-off) carry any quarter-final significance, the loss in Devon meaning Les Kiss’ side miss out on the last eight for the third consecutive season.
Having been signed in the spring of 2015, but arrived only this summer after a one-season turn at Wasps, Piutau has been as advertised throughout this campaign, a shining light in what has been a gloomy few months in Belfast.
But for all his eye-catching moments and chart-topping stats, the man the New Zealand media still call “the king of the ones that got away” believes his own form is irrelevant given the side’s slump which now reads eight losses in 12 games.
Even with his Ulster coach Niall Malone describing him as the best player in Europe, it clearly irks Piutau that his efforts could not lead the province back to the sharp end of continental competition.
“To be honest, it means nothing whether you are playing well or not if the team is not winning,” he said.
“For me, there’s a lot I can improve upon in my own game and hopefully that can help the team.
“I think the main thing is not letting the frustration take over, the coaches have been keeping us on point as well as the leaders in the team, and that is really key for us this week.
“Each player in the squad this week has been looking deep inside themselves and seeing how they can improve as an individual and hopefully we can come together better as a collective.”
European dead rubbers were not what he, or indeed the province, had in mind when the 25-year-old gave up his place in an All Blacks squad that would go on to win the World Cup, but there is no hint from Piutau that the visit from the Top 14 outfit is of little consequence.
“There is a lot on this game for us, personally we have a lot to prove to ourselves and our fans,” he stressed.
“I think attitude-wise, it is maybe a bit higher than it has been.
“I think for ourselves, and leading into the other games, we want to make a statement.
“It will be nice to step forward and get a good platform to build off.
“That’s the beauty of rugby, you can start off slowly and finish really strong. The season is a bit of a roller-coaster.
“We are not in the greatest place, or a place we’d love to be, but hopefully in five weeks I’ll have a bigger smile on my face.
“We hope to be flying high by then.”
While Ulster have displayed little of late to suggest such a run of victories is on the horizon, the PRO12 fixture list offers hope.
Opposition such as Clermont, Exeter, Leinster and Scarlets — four sides who have dealt Ulster serious blows over the last month — will be few and far between in the upcoming weeks, with a mid-February visit from Glasgow the only occasion before April when they will tackle a side currently above them in the standings.
The run of favourable fixtures will have to be negotiated without the side’s Irish stars, however, with the likes of Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble likely to be absent until the final throes of the campaign thanks to the Six Nations.
With Piutau, Ruan Pienaar coming back from injury and Marcell Coetzee close to a debut after arriving with a torn ACL, Ulster will still boast a side with plenty of international pedigree throughout the period and Piutau is ready to shoulder the leadership load.
“I always see pressure as something you can let eat you up or just walk towards and hopefully let it bring out the better side of you,” he said.
“I’m just really excited and looking forward to the challenges ahead.
“Definitely, from what I have seen there is a lot of confidence in our team no matter who is out there on the field.
“I think it’ll be more of an opportunity for other guys in the team and group.
“And although you would love to have that experience there from the Ireland guys, a club is made up of everyone here and everyone plays a part.
“It will be a good chance to see other players coming through or the players that haven’t had much game time.”
And by the time those Irish stars return, Piutau expects his side to be right back in contention for the PRO12 crown, a title that has eluded them since Mark McCall led them to the Celtic League in 2006.
“We set high standards and had high hopes for both comps this season,” he added.
“The reality is one is now over for us but the positive side is that there is still silverware left on the table.”
For that, they will need Piutau at his considerable best more than ever.