Ulster can still shake up Europe: Charles Piutau
Having been brought to Ulster to improve the province's record in the biggest of games, Charles Piutau admits he is itching to make his European bow for his new side against Exeter Chiefs tomorrow night (7.45pm kick-off).
Having had to wait almost 18 months between signing on the dotted line at Kingspan Stadium and pulling on the white jersey, missing both his first interpro and European contest through injury was hardly in the script, but the All Black superstar is optimistic the effects of a lingering concussion will not keep him out for a third week in succession.
With the reverses suffered by Les Kiss's men at the hands of Connacht and Bordeaux-Begles over the last two weeks frustrating to watch as a spectator, the 24-year-old is eagerly anticipating his return to action.
"Just like any other injury, it's tough not to be a part of it," he said. "I guess you can't do much with protocols and concussions because they're serious injuries. As much as you want to be out there you have to do what's right to get it better.
"I've still got to pass a few tests, but so far this week I've been feeling great and I've passed the tests so far.
"If I do get the opportunity I'm really excited to pull on the Ulster jersey and represent the club in a European match.
"I'd heard a lot about it before and it was definitely a reason why I was excited to come and be a part of this club.
"Being the European Cup, it's just a different competition; it's the best of the best over here in Europe. The intensity of the game, the speed, the quality of the players too, it's a lot higher."
Piutau got his first taste of the competition a year ago during his 12-month stint with Wasps, a run to the semi-finals that included a memorable brace in a last eight meeting with tomorrow night's opponents.
With his second score that day setting up former Leinster out-half Jimmy Gopperth's last kick conversion, it provided one of the more memorable moments of the 2015/16 campaign.
As Piutau is quick to point out, however, Exeter got the better of his old side on the other three occasions they met, and indeed the aggregate score of the four meetings was 123-78 in favour of the Devon outfit.
"It's the close games like that people remember," he said with a laugh. "That was a tough one but then they beat us in the other games. I played them quite a bit last year and they're a classy side."
As such, even if many of those on show this weekend also played in the considerably lower stakes pre-season contest between the two teams, Piutau is uniquely placed to asses the threats posed by Rob Baxter's men.
"They have threats across the whole park and they made a few play-offs and a (Premiership) final last year, so they're building on that, and they're a good team," he said.
"I think their forward pack is really strong, particularly their maul. Their ball carrying game when they're going forward is a big threat.
"And then you've got class playmakers on their side and a lot of quality finishers in that back line.
"So throughout the field they're a really strong team."
Just as Ulster lost in Bordeaux on Sunday, Exeter had their own issues with Top14 opposition as Clermont ran in five tries at Sandy Park. And while Exeter themselves made the quarters last year despite losing three of their pool games, tomorrow now takes on the magnitude of a must-win for both.
Piutau, however, is excited by the opportunity to right Ulster's wrongs from last week and states nobody in the province's camp has wavered from their belief that this is a side capable of making the last eight.
"That's the exciting thing about rugby, you always have next week to fix it and try and improve on your game," he said.
"That's the mindset in camp right now, there's a real buzz to show the things that we can do and improve on the things that we didn't do so well last week.
"Both teams are hurting and will be looking to rectify last week's results. This game is very important for us and we know Exeter will be wanting to make up for that defeat as well.
"It's definitely possible that we can reach the knock-out stages. We all believe we have the quality to get through to the quarter-final stage at least. But we have to focus on these pool games first.
"The next game against Exeter is the most important."