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Ulster fire powerful message with capture of Piutau

By Michael Sadlier

Well, it's no good thinking and talking big unless you're prepared to back it all up. And Charles Piutau meets all the requirements demanded by an Ulster side intent on achieving their unfulfilled ambitions.

And while this season began in turmoil, as first David Humphreys and then Mark Anscombe left, and ended prematurely in Europe, the vision to keep growing has not been lost even if expectations have been dampened by the record European defeat at Toulon in January.

And, of course, they do have a shot at the PRO12 title to still chase, but Europe is where it's really at. So, Ulster have struck out and paid out to bring genuine game-breaking quality to their ranks.

Potentially winning the PRO12 is one thing, but challenging for the Champions Cup is the primary route.

To be where Ulster are at this stage in the season, namely hunting down a PRO12 semi-final, is not part of the larger vision. Ideally this week would have been about preparing for a Champions Cup quarter-final, as has been the case since 2011, but Ulster have found the steepening challenge of the streamlined competition to be unforgiving.

Chasing down and nailing Piutau is part of a process to revitalise their European hopes and is a grand statement of Ulster's determination to get back up on the horse.

With Piutau a done deal for Ulster as far as observers in New Zealand are concerned - Ulster Rugby are yet to confirm but are expected to do so - it seems that those running the show at the Kingspan are not going to be content with going through the motions when it comes to marquee signings.

Piutau is a massively impressive coup for Bryn Cunningham, whose remit is now player recruitment since he took over as team manager last October.

His insight and knowledge of the market has proved invaluable here as Ulster have found themselves a player of huge talent and ability. The 23-year-old can play any position in the backline outside the half-backs and has scorching power and pace.

His versatility is key and with him expected to be here in January 2016, interestingly halfway through Les Kiss's first full season running the show, the space will have by then been created for him as one of Ulster's Non-Irish Qualified players.

With Louis Ludik, Franco van der Merwe and Nick Williams (all NIQs) all out of contract at the end of next season, Piutau will have a ready-made slot to seamlessly slip into the IRFU's stipulations for overseas non-Irish qualified or potentially qualified (Wiehahn Herbst is a three-year 'project' player who hopes to follow Jared Payne's example) squad members at the provinces.

Indeed, Ulster are not yet finished when it comes to signing up another player with a big reputation and it is thought that a back row slot is the possible place for the next sabre-rattling development.

Getting Piutau will do very nicely to start with and represents some clever work in landing a player who was thought unlikely to be targeted for northern hemisphere transfer. The theory was that the opportunity of becoming a regular All Black between the World Cups of this autumn and 2019 would simply have kept enough to keep him on board.

Piutau was competing with Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane and Israel Dagg for his All Black starting spot and his best case scenario was a bench spot.

His versatility should see him make the World Cup squad but the lure of big money for a short-term deal at Ulster has made him decide to go for it and then maybe return home in time to really challenge for RWC 2019, as Jerome Kaino has done this time around.

It's a risky business but worth the gamble if it all pays off for the man whose Twitter account tells us that he is: "Living out a scripted life written and directed by the man above!"

Belfast Telegraph


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