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I'll always cherish my time at Ulster: Piutau

Kiwi admits he’s finding it tough to say goodbye ahead of final game

By Jonathan Bradley

In recent years, Charles Piutau has got used to saying his fond farewells.

From when he first signed his Ulster deal back in the spring of 2015, he has waved goodbye to his homeland and his hometown team the Auckland Blues, before a short but sweet stint with Wasps also drew to a close.

Now, having spent two years in Belfast, it is time to bring the curtain down on his latest chapter, tomorrow's Champions Cup play-off with Ospreys (3.05pm kick-off) representing his final time in an Ulster jersey before newly-promoted Bristol make him one of the best paid players in the world.

His tenure at Kingspan Stadium has been an odd one - for all his obvious talents, the side haven't made the play-offs in either season - but he is determined to finish off with the victory that would at least secure Ulster's place in next year's Champions Cup.

"It's always tough saying goodbye," admitted the 26-year-old. "Team-mates have become family members now.

"Belfast, it's a home from home, a city where I have been living for a couple of years. It's definitely going to be tough, but I will have great memories to take away from here, and a lot of friendships.

"(It's amazing) just how big rugby is in the city, and how much it means to the fans, is something special.

"Playing here in the home stadium is something I love, at a club level it's something special. Playing back in New Zealand, the atmospheres are (different) as (the stadiums) are not that packed playing Super Rugby.

"I think for myself, the decision to come here was a decision that I was always going to be happy with. I knew I wasn't going to look back.

"Being over here and the experiences starting with Wasps then here was well above what I expected, not only on the field but off the field.

"It's been a life experience. Experiencing different cultures and seeing this side of the world really opened my eyes and I wouldn't have changed it for anything else."

Piutau's Bristol deal was long in the pipeline, indeed announced prior to this season even beginning, but, as this week has wore on, it has hit home with the full-back that his time here has been coming to an end.

"When I've been training and in the team environment with my team-mates it's just another day, focus on the task and do what I need to do, but when I've been at home or out having coffee with the boys it sinks in, this is the last week, last game, last time I get to do this," he said.

"So you get to reflect, but any time I'm in this environment or on this pitch I'm focused on the task at hand."

This weekend, that means the visit of Allen Clarke's Ospreys, a clash that's importance is hard to over-state.

In more than two decades of European competition, Ulster have never played a single game in the second-tier Challenge Cup, but stand 80 minutes away from an unwanted first.

While the likes of Clermont, Stade Francais and Northampton Saints are already confirmed to be in the second tier, as well as, of course, the Bristol side Piutau will represent, it would be a huge blow to the province in terms of financial gains and perceived prestige.

Ospreys have been much improved under former Ulster coach and player Clarke's tenure though, and Piutau knows that the last meeting between these two, five weeks ago in Belfast, could have gone either way before Jacob Stockdale's late try sealed an 8-0 win.

"From the last game we played in here, their defence is very strong," he said.

"We probably had a whole second half trying to get across that line. It was a physical battle, they pride themselves on their contact and stuff like that, and they have very experienced backs with the likes of Dan Biggar who controls the team.

"It'll be a big physical game and a tough defence that will be hard to break down. It's an exciting challenge.

"The coaches have tried to get us to take it step by step, not to get too far ahead of ourselves and focus on the result.

"We just have to do what we need to do now, stay in the process, execute our game plan, execute our roles and play as best as we can and hopefully the result will take care of itself."

Piutau, at least, has always seemed to save his best for the big games, usually in Europe, and believes he is ready to embrace the pressure of the must-win contest.

"In sport and as a rugby player it's games like this you want to be a part of, and games like this players show what they can do in those pressure moments," he said.

"It's an exciting challenge, not only for myself but for the team, we're looking forward to it. We know there's a lot at stake and I'd love to leave this club knowing they'll be staying in top-level European rugby, and for the younger players to experience that."

And how would he like to sign off? He added: "Hopefully with a try, I haven't scored a try in ages."

Bradley's verdict: Ulster

Despite enduring a campaign they'd rather leave behind, Ulster have remained strong at home, though on paper Ospreys' pack should gain the upper hand. Ulster's backline still has the potential to do damage, especially with Jacob Stockdale , but with such a long break from the last game, form is really out the window.

Belfast Telegraph

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