Ulster's Charles Piutau has a red hot welcome for Scarlets
Ulster superstar relishing opportunity to have a crack at his old pals
Coming into his third different team in as many years, Ulster superstar Charles Piutau is used to change but admits he'll be glad to see the familiar face of opposing coach Wayne Pivac when Ulster host Scarlets tonight (7.05pm kick-off).
Back in early 2010, long before he was capped by the All Blacks and secured a big-money move to Europe, Piutau was just a promising schoolboy at Wesley College, the same institution that produced Jonah Lomu.
After leaving, his first club side would be Pakuranga United, an amateur outfit then coached by Pivac.
Both would eventually graduate to Auckland's ITM Cup side - Pivac for a second stint when he replaced former Ulster boss Mark Anscombe - and Piutau is looking forward to greeting the man he says brought the best out of him during those earliest days of his career.
"I have played with Hadleigh Parkes and I have been coached by Wayne Pivac so I know those two people quite well," said Piutau who has fully recovered from the thumb injury sustained fielding an Andrew Trimble kick in training that caused him to miss out against Treviso last week.
"I respect Wayne highly, he had a lot of involvement in the early stages of my career and I am very thankful for that.
"He's someone that knew how I played and how to bring the best out of me and I'm very grateful for that."
The respect is mutual with Pivac believing Piutau to be the best player currently plying his trade in the PRO12.
"I think Ulster will be up there because they have a very good coach in Less Kiss and the best player in the competition in Charles Piutau," the Kiwi said this week.
"He is a confident player so he brings quite a lot. He is a complete player really."
While his X-factor has already been well-received in Belfast, Pivac believes such a talent can bring an untold boost to any side both on and off the pitch.
"A player like that can put a couple of thousand bums on seats," he added. "You talk to the Wasps coach about the influence he had there; just look at Bundee Aki with Connacht, how he lifted them last season - Piutau is a class above Bundee Aki in the level of rugby he has played, he was getting player of the match in Test matches for the All Blacks against South Africa last year."
Such platitudes will not last beyond 7.05pm this evening however with Piutau itching to get back into the fray after sitting out last week, a frustration all the more acute given the burgeoning understanding he is building with his new team-mates.
"It's always hard being injured because you always want to be out there playing with your team-mates," he said.
"It is part of rugby and throughout the season I may pick up a few niggles so I just have to stay positive.
"The big thing for me is finding out how the players around me tick and what their attributes are and what their skill sets are and trying to work together with them and try to compliment them out on the field. It's early stages but there are a few things to work on that I can still get better and improve."
Pivac is surely not alone in thinking Piutau is the PRO12's most complete player but the 24-year-old is not feeling the strain of being something of a marked-man throughout the league.
"I don't see it as pressure or expectation," he said. "As a rugby player I know all I need to do is my role and that's what I try to do the best I can.
"Whether I have the ball in my hand or not, if it is defence or anything else, it's all about enjoying it and having fun.
"At the same time, I need to make sure I'm playing my part for the team. (The extra attention) could be a positive for my team. If I pass the ball, I'm sure they will be in space.
"In the past I have come up against teams that will put an extra man on you and will find ways and tactics to keep you out of the game so I just have to think of other ideas to get my team-mates involved."
With Piutau's addition to a backline already stacked full of Irish international talent giving Kiss a selection headache when all are fit and firing, Scarlets have a similar wealth of options. With Jonathan Davies back in midfield, alongside Piutau's old team-mate Parkes, Wales international Scott Williams finds himself on the bench.
"The potential they have makes them even more dangerous because they haven't won yet," said Piutau.
"They will be hoping to put on the type of performance they believe they're capable of. I heard their back three are great counter attackers and they have a lot of strike power."
Come this evening, he'll see for himself in a battle the Kingspan fans eagerly await.
The key battle
Sean Reidy: Two sides with potent backlines, the key battle this evening will be between the men trying to secure ball for those behind the pack. Both teams have frequently used twin open sides in their back row with flanker a real area of strength for Scarlets. Alongside Rio Olympic Sevens silver medalist James Davies who plays at eight, tonight’s visitors are able to field experienced Scottish international.
John Barclay: John Barclay in the number seven jersey. Dogged and quick to get over the ball, if Barclay is prominent then Scarlets’ backs can do the rest. With Chris Henry and Marcell Coetzee injured, much will rest for Ulster on Sean Reidy. Something of an all-round open side, the man who made his Ireland debut in June after a fantastic season last year will need to focus on the more traditional values of the position and influence the breakdown.
Having lost both of their opening games this season, and failed to take even a losing bonus point from either, the struggling Scarlets have been one of the PRO12’s early surprises. A team who like to play very much like Ulster, their efforts to move the ball wide at pace have been hampered by some poor weather in the first two weeks. With an improvement on that front expected tomorrow, there’ll be no such excuses but Ulster will have taken note of their opponent’s issues up front so far. Against both Munster and Edinburgh, the Scarlets’ scrum creaked in the absence of first-choice props Rob Evans and Samson Lee. While Ulster have had injury issues of their own in the front row, and are still waiting for Rory Best to make his first appearance of the season, it is an area that they will surely target. If Scarlets again fail to get much of a platform from their pack, their star-studded back line will struggle to influence proceedings.
The main threats
While much has been said of Ulster’s off-season recruitment coming into this campaign, Scarlets were raising eybrows themselves with some big-name additions. Welsh international and 2013 Lion Jonathan Davies was brought back home from a mixed spell in Clermont and starts in midfield this evening. Rhys Patchell made the shorter journey from Cardiff to fill the 10 jersey, however former Crusaders wing Johnny McNicholl will not arrive until later in the year. Liam Williams has been a star in the side for a handful of seasons but his influence seems to be growing week on week and he will start on the wing this evening having switched from full-back. A swift counter-attacker, Williams is also keen to engage his opposing back three in an aerial battle. In back rowers John Barclay and James Davies the Llanelli outfit are capable of bossing the breakdown which could tip the scales in their favour even with a struggling scrum. With Ulster’s usual line-out caller Franco van der Merwe on the bench, Welsh international Jake Ball will look to dominate the set-piece.