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Ulster must make stunning Munster comeback the key point of the season, says Charles Piutau

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster talisman Charles Piutau hopes that, when all is said and done come May, the province can look back on Monday's stunning turnaround as a key moment in their season.

Trailing 17-0 to Munster, Les Kiss' side must have been fearing the worst, with the pockets of restless natives around Kingspan Stadium preparing to vent their frustrations.

Having failed to convince in the PRO14 this season, even during some relatively lengthy unbeaten stretches, wheels that were loosened before Christmas in Connacht were threatening to come off against the southern province.

With the Galway outfit having racked up a record score last time out, Munster's first three-game winning streak in Belfast for over 100 years seemed an inevitability that was sure to heap the pressure on Kiss and his coaching ticket.

A different team emerged for the second half, though, and pulled off the most unlikely of bonus-point wins thanks to a combined four tries from the impressive trio of Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and Rob Lyttle.

While there was plenty from the first 40 that will quantify as a video nasty when the team reconvene today in a short week ahead of Saturday's trip to Leinster, Piutau wants to make sure that the win becomes a turning point rather than further evidence of maddening inconsistency.

"Although it wasn't pretty, we'll look back at the (end of the) season and say we got points from this game," said the former All Black who will join Bristol this summer. "(We can say) New Year's Day, we played in front of our crowd, coming from a game we were hurting from, and we got the result.

"We can go forward and build on this."

With the pair of sides ahead of them in the PRO14's conference B, Leinster and Scarlets, both banking two wins from two over the festive season, losses to finish 2017 and then start 2018 would have left the table looking bleak with only nine games remaining.

And with trips to Dublin, Llanelli, Edinburgh and Limerick all still to be negotiated if the gap to the top two is ever to be bridged, Piutau understands they will have to deal with adversity just as well as they did on Monday after being nilled on their own patch for over 50 minutes.

"During the week we had a big emphasis on our response," he revealed. "If we make a mistake or if we put together some good phases, it's how we respond to the next play and how quickly I can get a hold of myself if I've made a mistake.

"It's hard when there's moments where the momentum is with another team, and I think being out there the feeling was it's not happening now but it's only a matter of time. The next chance or the next moment will swing our way, and eventually it did and we took advantage of it."

While Piutau's own days in an Ulster jersey are numbered, first out the door marked exit will be his fellow Antipodean Christian Leali'ifano.

The Wallaby international, who signed on a short-term deal in August as he sought game time following a cancer battle, is due back at the Brumbies in three weeks' time.

Piutau, for one, will miss the man who has been the side's starting out-half in 13 of 16 games already this season.

"Playing alongside him brings a lot of calmness," said the former Auckland Blue. "Everything's moving at 100mph and he's got this aura about him and calibre of playing the game. In the breaks he's telling us, 'This is what I'm seeing', and what the outside backs are seeing and how to rectify things to exploit gaps."

Both Piutau and Leali'ifano are expected to go again in the RDS as Ulster return to a venue that has been far from a happy hunting ground.

With Leinster able to name their strongest side having already accounted for Munster and Connacht with weakened teams, this weekend brings arguably Ulster's toughest fixture of the campaign.

The Dublin outfit have been in irresistible form at times. With that in mind, Ulster will be hoping the likes of Rory Best, Chris Henry and Sean Reidy, all of whom were battling injury, are ready to go.

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