Piutau aims for a special ending to his Ulster career
It would take an unlikely set of circumstances, but there remains a possibility that tomorrow’s clash with Munster (5.35pm) could well be Charles Piutau’s final game in an Ulster jersey.
The 17-times-capped All Black arrived in Belfast in summer 2016, sacrificing a World Cup winners’ medal to make the move to the northern hemisphere for a stint that started with a one-year sojourn at Wasps.
He’ll be back in England next season with the newly promoted and recently re-branded Bristol Bears who, having also signed former Ulster favourite John Afoa, are set to make the full-back the best paid player in world rugby.
Should tomorrow see his last game in Ireland, the 26-year-old will leave behind a somewhat perplexing legacy. Possessing superstar talent, he has shown it on numerous occasions at Kingspan Stadium, lighting up games with magical moments of which the majority of players in the PRO14 are not capable. Indeed he was recognised as the league’s best player in his first season.
As part of a wider picture however, last year Ulster missed out on playing knock-out rugby for a first time since 2010 and it will take something unexpected to reverse that trend.
Only a bonus point win in Limerick, and Edinburgh taking nothing from their hosting of Glasgow later tomorrow evening, will see the northern province claim a place in the expanded league play-offs rather than face a qualification game for the Champions Cup in mid-May, a game which may not even be necessary should other things go Ulster’s way.
And while Thomond Park doesn’t hold many happy memories for Piutau — he was criticised for a poor defensive effort there last season — he sees it as a fitting place for what could be the end in an Ulster jersey.
“It’s nice to have something to play for,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake but it’s an awesome opportunity and a great challenge for the team. They’re a class side Munster, they’re a proud club, and that adds more to the game, it’ll be a great occasion.
“It’s one of the best feelings coming over here when you see how much it means to everyone, all the supporters really get behind their teams and even the players too, there’s always a bit more passion and the contacts are that little bit harder.
“I want to put my best performance out there for the team and help out where I can.
“And then looking back at the end of the day, I’ll say I’ve enjoyed every moment of putting on this jersey, representing this club and making great memories with my team-mates.”
While Munster cannot improve their own position — no matter what happens they’ll be hosting either Edinburgh or Ulster next weekend — the visitors’ head coach Jono Gibbes does not envisage his side will be getting any favours from a team still smarting from a Champions Cup semi-final defeat last weekend.
“I think anyone who’s ever been down there and played a Munster team, you certainly do not go down there with a mindset of getting four tries against them easily at all,” he said.
“They’re a formidable opponent, a proud team down there and whoever pulls on that red jersey it’ll be a big challenge for us. It is just good to be alive in the last game, to be honest.
“To go to Munster in a position where there is still something for us to play for is great, because we have had adversity.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital