Ulster star Charles Piutau's special reason to sparkle
Ulster's top man will have his mum and dad at crucial match and is determined to show recent poor run has been nothing but a blip
Having spent the first three months of his Ulster career rapidly adding admirers, Charles Piutau will have some more familiar fans in the Kingspan Stadium tonight when the province take on Zebre (7.35pm kick-off).
Piutau's parents, Manako and Melenaite, will be at the home of Ulster Rugby this evening with Charles keen to show them the form that has already made him a crowd favourite in his new home.
"Having them in the stadium, watching the game, and watching me play, it's always a huge motivator and I'm really looking forward to it," he said.
"It's great for them too. They can get some peace of mind knowing it's a great city here that I'm in and seeing the set-up at Ulster. It helps for them to see how good everything is here for me.
"It's been a bit cold for them this week, but that's been the only problem."
Family visits are a welcome connection to home for Piutau, he is the youngest of 10 siblings and even last season at Wasps had big brother Siale for company, but he continues to relish this journey into the unknown.
"It all kind of came out of the blue but being here now, it's great the things that I've experienced on the field but off it too. I'm loving every moment of it," he said.
"I think from about the third month here I felt really settled and started to see Belfast and the club as home. There's great people here, the staff but the fans too.
"The fans are such a huge part of this club. They've made my transition really smooth. Around the city, just when you're out for coffee, they're so genuine. They love the club and love rugby."
If Piutau (pictured with his mum) could change one thing though, other than the dropping temperatures which are felt all the more keenly as New Zealand enters summer, it would be the recent run of results.
Ulster have dropped three in a row in the Guinness Pro12 for the first time since 2011/12, the last year in which they failed to make the end of season play-offs.
It's a run which has rendered their impressive start to the campaign - they reeled off five straight wins to kick things off - nothing more than a distant memory as they look up at the league's top four.
After such a dire team performance away to Edinburgh last time out, Piutau admits that the three-week break in Pro12 action could have come at a better time.
"You have to take it as a time to freshen up but it's always at the back of your mind that you're hurting. We're looking forward to getting out there and making sure we put in a much better performance," he said.
"We started with a bang and had a few good wins on the trot but the last few weeks haven't been good enough.
"We haven't done as well as we would like to. We're lucky it's still early days because we have to improve it."
Even after seeing his old Wasps team-mates put 82 points on Zebre in the Champions Cup, the 25-year-old believes that Les Kiss's men must be at their best if they are to get back to winning ways tonight.
"It's not an easy task ahead at all," he warned.
"They've shown what they can do to other teams if you're not at your best and we have to be preparing like it's one of the top teams that we're going against. We have to be on point and bring our 'A' game if we're going to get the right result.
"It's the start of a really big run for us," he said, knowing that Cardiff, Connacht and Leinster, as well as a European double with Clermont, are all to come before the new year.
"There's great challenges ahead. But that's exciting for players and coaches too."
Even against usually uninspiring opposition, there is no escaping what is at stake for Ulster when even a failure to earn a bonus point would see grumblings continue.
It is odd, perhaps, then for Piutau that, unlike in Super Rugby, so many games of importance occur without current international players present.
Instead, he looks at it as an opportunity for youngsters, the likes of Jacob Stockdale and Rob Lyttle, to impress.
"It is definitely different," he reflected. "I kind of experienced it last year in the Aviva (Premiership) too.
"It's one of those things but it's an awesome experience for younger guys too."
Soon the likes of Rory Best and co will be back though and Piutau is sure they have been boosted by Ireland's first ever win over his homeland.
"I guess I was kind of neutral," he laughed. "I have friends on both teams now. It was a great rugby display by both teams and one win for Ireland and one for New Zealand. It was a win win for me!
"I think they're going to bring so much energy and confidence from the international team. That's going to boost us here when they come back."
For now, Piutau is not a bad man to be holding the fort.