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Piutau is determined to be a real knockout

Newly-engaged superstar wants to repeat his past heroics against Exeter Chiefs and bring Ulster back into Europe's quarter-final stage

By Jonathan Bradley

After two seasons away from the knockout rounds, many in Ulster's panel for their defining European fixture against Exeter tomorrow (5.30pm kick-off) have no experience of the sharp end of the Champions Cup.

Charles Piutau, however, is no stranger to the thrill of Europe's latter stages after his one-season sojourn at Wasps.

It was with the Coventry outfit last year that he took the side to the top of a powerhouse pool containing Toulon, Leinster and Bath, before scoring a key brace during victory over tomorrow's opponents in the last eight.

And while they ultimately could not get past the eventual winners Saracens in the semis, it's an experience he would dearly love to replicate with his new side.

Ulster must win at the home of Chiefs, beat Bordeaux next week and see some other results go their way, but the 25-year-old remains a believer.

"It's a great opportunity for us to show what we can do when our backs are against the wall," he said.

"Yes, we need points but in some ways that's exciting.

"I think these next couple of games, they're must-wins if we're to have any chance to make the quarters.

"This Exeter game is really crucial and we know we've got to put in a big performance.

"For the club, it would mean a lot. Last year they just missed out, we want to improve on that but we have to focus on Exeter, there's no use looking beyond this game.

"Fingers crossed because it would be great for the supporters.

"To be able to play at that level, it's a great experience for guys too who haven't been there before. It's a great opportunity and it would be amazing if we could make it happen."

While Ulster are certainly not in pole position, hope springs eternal after December's thumping home win over presumed pool winners Clermont and if the province can overcome the odds it certainly would create quite the memorable month for Piutau.

Last week, while on a scheduled break from Ulster, the former Auckland Blues man was in Paris with his long-term girlfriend from home, Lineti Latu.

And while his last visit to the city of lights was a memorable one - he scored a try in an All Blacks victory over France during 2013 - coming back engaged this time was certainly hard to top.

"Yeah, it was a milestone off the field for me I suppose," he said.

"It was really nice. Personally I probably like to keep those things quiet but it happens and I'm happy."

And while Piutau's wife-to-be remains in New Zealand, even impending nuptials don't have the electric wing thinking too far into the future.

"I'm not someone who looks too far beyond," he said of a career that will be at a crossroads when his Ulster deal expires in the summer of 2018.

"I've always been someone, whatever is on my plate now, that's my focus. It helps me being in the moment.

"When the time comes, it comes and I'll make decisions then but that's ahead.

"When I was at Wasps, I did the same thing. I was there giving everything I could until it was time to come here.

"There's no use looking at things so far away.

"Most New Zealanders are like that, the ones I know anyway. I don't know how to compare it to other countries but just take each day as it comes.

"I think, this year and next, I just want to be the best player I can be. Every day just try and be better than the last.

"As a team, we want silverware, for the club, for the supporters. Hopefully this year and then the next I can help do that for this club."

While a European title was a little far-fetched even before losing two of the first four pool games, a quarter-final spot, or even going close to the last eight through two further wins, would certainly boost morale for a squad who have been indifferent of late.

Piutau, who got to know the Chiefs well during four meetings last season, is sure that the Premiership outfit will make life tough tomorrow.

Having been in something of a funk when they lost in Belfast, the side captained by Ulsterman Gareth Steenson have developed some real consistency in recent weeks, a first ever Premiership win at the Rec against Bath the highlight of a run that has lifted them into third.

"They always had the potential to be where they're at now," reflected Piutau.

"They played Saracens last week and it was a tight game and the weeks before that, you can see they're coming into form.

"It's a tough ask and we know that we need to be at our best.

"We have some real quality players here though, when you look at the internationals who play so much for Ireland, that can give us a big lift in these games.

"There's some players have played so many games for the club too that aren't even that old yet.

"So we know the club is in a good position, we just have to go out and show it."

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