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Mighty Charles Piutau glad he went for Ulster over All Blacks

Jonathan Bradley

If he had made a different choice when Ulster came calling back in the spring of 2015, Charles Piutau could have been lining out against Ireland for his native New Zealand this weekend rather than taking on Edinburgh in the Guinness PRO12 tonight (7.35pm kick-off) with Les Kiss' men.

Given that he was becoming a regular in Steve Hansen's panel at the time the move was announced, the deal to bring the now 25-year-old to Belfast caused much consternation in his homeland, and ultimately cost him a place in the victorious World Cup squad of 2015, but Piutau admits his decision to come north was not one based solely on sport.

"It was more life outside of rugby," he said of the reasons behind him upping sticks and arriving in Belfast. "I wanted to get out of New Zealand, get out of my comfort zone.

"I wanted to get away from things I'm really comfortable with and try a new challenge. Ulster is a great opportunity for me and that's why I took it.

"I look at (New Zealand) now and I'm just another fan, I'm another supporter of the team just enjoying what they're doing, creating history (they have secured a record 18 Test triumphs in a row)."

After his starring role for Wasps last season - a one-year move necessitated when the union in New Zealand blocked his attempt to continue playing for the Blues in Super Rugby until it was time to head to Kingspan Stadium - rumours swirled that the Aucklander would have to make another tough decision but Piutau stresses that staying with the Coventry-based outfit was never an option.

"The big thing for me was honouring my word," he said.

"I am a man of my word and I just went through with what I said. First and foremost, that was a big thing for me. I wasn't going to change my decision.

"That's rugby. You never know how well it is going to go in a team or in a season. I was lucky enough to have the Ulster deal there for me."

Since arriving on these shores, Piutau's electric ability with ball in hand has drawn rave reviews from both here and further afield.

While his status as an All Black at home will have afforded him a great deal of attention in the rugby-obsessed nation, he was then one of many whereas now he is the undisputed star attraction.

As just one of a family of 10, the status, he says, is unlikely to ever go to his head.

"You've got to get used to the attention but what's really helped me is being grounded," he said. "I'm in a team and a club where we never get ahead of ourselves. You know where you stand.

"The main thing for me is just always understanding that I'm just Charles. My family keeps me grounded.

"I am the youngest of 10, so I'm always just their little brother, trying to impress my siblings. That's how I see rugby. At the end of the day, I just love playing the game and everything that comes outside of it is what it is."

He will line out at full-back this evening, having scored his first competitive Ulster try against Munster last week in a game that marked the return to action of prop Wiehahn Herbst.

The South African tighthead had been out of action since January. First, he was struggling with a toe problem before picking up a groin injury in pre-season.

"It's tough," Herbst admitted. "It gets to you.

"You have to find ways to stay positive. We have a great physio team here and they help you to get through.

"Even if you're not playing, you still feel part of it, the boys keep you inside.

"There's been quite a few injuries so there's always somebody who can help you through and relate to you."

Given Ulster's problems in the three jersey - Rodney Ah You and Ross Kane have manned the position all year but are now on the sidelines alongside Ricky Lutton - Herbst was pressed into a 65-minute shift in his first taste of action for nine months.

He says, however, that it was the early going he found the most testing.

"It was a long shift but the worst was the first 10 minutes. After that you recover," he said. "I got cramps around 65 minutes but that's to be expected after nine months out. It was just great being back."

The 28-year-old, who is in the last year of his deal and becomes Irish qualified next season, has come back into a team appearing to lack confidence after dropping three of the last four in all competitions.

He does not, however, feel that there is a mood of panic ahead of tonight's trip to Murrayfield.

He added: "We know what we can do. It's not panic stations. It's been small errors and we know what to do to fix it."

All-Black Charles Piutau was in The Helix Theatre in Dublin to officially launch the historic 'Rugby Weekend' event in Chicago, presented by AIG Insurance. Ireland play the All Blacks tomorrow in Chicago's Soldier Field.

Ulster Director of Rugby Les Kiss downplayed the notion that this was a game his side could not afford to lose but a three-game losing streak in the PRO12 would certainly seriously hamper their ambitions. The returns of Dan Tuohy and Wiehahn Herbst have bolstered the pack and Ulster should have the talent to see off a side beaten by Zebre last time out.

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