Ulster hoping Piutau can turbo boost their Champions Cup campaign

Kiwi recovering from concussion as Exeter come to Belfast also looking for first win

Charles Piutau wants to play, Alan O'Connor to learn. They are team-mates bound together by a desire to ensure that Ulster's setback against Bordeaux Bègles is not replicated when the Exeter Chiefs come calling to Belfast on Saturday night.

Piutau isn’t sure whether he will be involved or not but the signs are promising as he adheres to protocols following a late-onset concussion in the wake of Ulster’s victory over the Ospreys at the start of the month.

The 24-year-old All Black endured the frustration of watching the Bordeaux defeat on television but there’s no macho crap as he sensibly addresses the issue of his enforced sideline sabbatical.

“Yeah, just like any other injury or any other game – it’s tough not to be a part of it. I guess you can’t do much with protocols and concussions because they’re serious injuries. As much as you want to be out there, you have to do what’s right to get it better.



“I’ve still got to pass a few tests, but so far this week I’ve been feeling great and I’ve passed the tests so far.

"If I do get the opportunity, I'm excited to pull on the Ulster jersey and represent the club in a European match."

The feeling amongst his team-mates and the Ulster supporters is runs along similar lines.

As a player Piutau is a joy to behold, with his dazzling footwork, pace, balletic grace and his innate understanding of how to create space, both for him and others, when he is running or passing. There is intelligence to the way he defends too.

Last season Wasps received the benefit of his talent, an impact that saw him shortlisted for the Premiership player of the year accolade. In four games for Ulster this season, he’s already got the supporters salivating.

The stats are impressive: 316 metres gained, 45 carries, six clean breaks, 17 defenders beaten and 10 offloads. The only thing left in some respects is to score a try for the province. Saturday would be a good time to start. He has some form in that respect against Exeter, crossing for a beauty in a European quarter-final last season.

Ulster’s defeat in Bordeaux invited a bit of soul-searching, the performance unacceptable to players and management alike. Piutau was removed from the emotion of the occasion and could therefore watch the match more dispassionately.

“I guess it’s a lot different watching it on TV as opposed to being out on the field and feeling it. But you do see different angles watching on TV, and I guess, yeah, we all have our input after that game and it’s just a matter of working on what we can and what we think we need to fix.”

O’Connor endured a different perspective. He was at the coalface of the collisions, suffering the imperfections of the performance in real time.

“We needed to hold onto the ball and play in the more efficient areas of the pitch and exit better, to ride the storm. But we kept putting pressure back on ourselves so hopefully this week we’ll nail a lot of stuff we can control.”

Late penalty

A failure to capitalise on opportunities and errors invited Bordeaux into the match and once they had a foot in the door there was no way for Ulster to shut them out; that being said, a decision to run a late penalty ended up being particularly costly for the visitors.

Ulster coach Les Kiss will demand that his team smarten up in every respect. The Chiefs suffered a torrid time against Clermont Auvergne and they too are looking for some form of redemption at the weekend.

Sons of Ulster, Gareth Steenson and Ian Whitten, will be in the visiting dressingroom.

O’Connor, Dublin-born and a former Ireland under-20 international, has made a handsome contribution in his 30 appearances for the province since joining their academy in 2012. The 24-year-old understands the nature of the challenge that Exeter present, particularly up front.

Stem it at source

He explained: “They like their maul, they bring tempo to their play and you just have to stop that and stem it at source. They have a couple of good backs, they like keeping width to their play, so we have to deal with that as well.

“We have our systems in play to deal with what they are going to be throwing at us. We just have to do our jobs the best we can and hopefully that will stem it. We take pride in our defence. Hopefully we can get off the line and get the spacing right because they play with width; we just have to man up and hit them back behind the gainline.

“You have to bring that passion and pride yourself. No one likes losing and to lose in the manner we did [in Bordeaux] is disappointing. You just have to man up and face up to the challenge that is coming next and just go from there.”

Saturday could be cathartic for Piutau and O’Connor.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer