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Charles Piutau begins his reign at Ulster with a classy display over Northampton

Ulster 29-19 Northampton

By Jonathan Bradley

Just as nobody at the Kingspan Stadium will have been unduly concerned about the two defeats that began the pre-season, Les Kiss and company will not be attaching too much stock to the 29-19 victory over Northampton Saints last night in their final run-out before the big PRO12 kick-off.

The first-half performance, however, will do little to quell the excitement growing around Ulster this year.

When these particular English visitors last came to Belfast, their hosts came into the contest on the back of a 13-game winning run in all competitions.

Ulster were defeated that night, and also lost Tommy Bowe for five months thanks to the injury he shipped, and a season that started with such promise once again ended without silverware.

That squad - led by Mark Anscombe, who was in attendance last night watching his Canada 'A' squad lose to their Ulster counterparts - were the last Ulster team that entered a season seemingly this well poised to end a trophy drought that now stretches back a decade.

At the PRO12 launch held in Dublin last week, the buzz surrounding the squad was palpable as the additions of Charles Piutau, the All Black superstar who has had to wait 16 months for his Kingspan bow, and Springbok Marcell Coetzee have the Belfast outfit among the favourites to lift the trophy in the Aviva Stadium come May.

And last night, Piutau, with his first chance to show what he is capable of, duly delivered. Scoring a try and having a hand in another two, he earned the man of the match honours and looks sure to have a massive impact in the coming months.

Another summer acquisition, Rodney Ah You, has also been talked about a lot at Kingspan this summer as the prop is the last fit recognised tighthead in the senior squad.

With Wiehahn Herbst, Ricky Lutton and Johnny Simpson all picking up knocks in pre-season, the Kiwi signed from champions Connacht was another to impress, holding his own against a powerful Saints scrum, even after making an inauspicious start to his Kingspan career.

With the game only 10 minutes old, a high tackle on Ben Foden saw him yellow carded with Academy prospect Ross Kane thrown into the fray as a result.

Ulster survived the resulting scrum on their line when Louis Ludik made a strong tackle in midfield before Stuart McCloskey bundled the Saints into touch.

With the second quarter fast approaching, Piutau did well to diffuse a testing situation in the air before Robert Lyttle, the Queen's back who has been the star of pre-season to date, broke upfield.

His inside pass found Ludik, who finished strongly.

After impressively converting, Lyttle extended the lead further from the tee after Louis Picamoles was binned for a high tackle.

With the healthy crowd fully enjoying the fare on show, they got the moment they came for after 24 minutes with Piutau's first try in an Ulster jersey.

After good work from Jacob Stockdale, Paul Marshall quickly took a penalty and after a strong carry from Robbie Diack, Brett Herron fired an exceptional miss-pass to the All Black on the wing.

Taking it in his stride, a powerful hand-off was all that was required to go over in the corner.

Lyttle's conversion from the sideline was on target and things got even better for Ulster shortly before the turn.

Rob Herring, made co-captain along with Andrew Trimble this summer, delivered into the line-out and as the maul rumbled threateningly towards the line, was on hand to touch down.

Lyttle again converted and Ulster, despite still waiting for their Irish internationals to return, carried a 24-point lead into the interval.

The second half was a different matter with, as is so often the case in these affairs, plenty of substitutions robbing the game of its flow.

The Saints piled on plenty of pressure and got their reward only minutes into the half when prop Alex Walker went over. Piutau was quickly back to the fore as, after a try-saving intervention, a searing break seemed sure to deliver his second. While a last-ditch tackle stopped him short, his pass sent Stockdale into the clear.

The conversion was missed with the try proving to be the end of Ulster's scoring for the night.

Jim Mallinder's men ended with 14 unanswered points through tries from Thomas Collins and JP Estelles, but Ulster's thoughts will have already turned to next week's opener with Dragons at home on Friday night.

ULSTER: C Piutau; J Stockdale, L Ludik, S McCloskey, R Lyttle; B Herron, P Marshall; A Warwick, R Herring (capt), R Ah You, P Browne, F van der Merwe, R Diack, C Ross, R Wilson;

REPLACEMENTS: J Andrew, C Black, R Kane, A O'Connor, C Joyce, M Rea, D Shanahan, S Windsor, D Busby.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: B Foden, K Pisi, L Burrell, H Mallinder, A Tuala, S Myler, L Dickson; A Waller, D Hartley, K Brookes, M Paterson, J Craig, T Wood (capt), J Gibson, L Picamoles

REPLACEMENTS: C Ma'afu, M Haywood, P Hill, C Lawes, J Onojaife, R Marshall, L Ludlam, S Dickinson, N Groom, JJ Hanrahan, H Packman, G Pisi, J-P Estelles, T Collins, G Furbank

Referee: Lloyd Linton (Scotland)

Match rating: 7/10

Man of the match: Charles Piutau

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