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Ulster: Jackson And Henderson Make Successful Returns But The Show Still Belongs To Piutau

Guinness PRO12, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 16/9/2016 Ulster vs Scarlets Scarlets' Jonathan Davies misses his tackle on Ulster's Charles Piutau Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

It’s hard to remember a signing in the Pro 12 that has brought as much buzz and excitement as All Black Charles Piutau has to Ulster.

Doug Howlett was 29 when he joined Munster in 2008 and had a decade’s worth of professional rugby experience already behind him. Rocky Elsom was at the peak of his powers when he joined Michael Cheika’s Leinster side that same year, but that was 2008, when Pro 12 clubs could acquire some of Europe’s, and indeed the world’s, best rugby talent.

2016’s European rugby landscape sees Irish, Italian, Welsh and Scottish clubs operate under a different set of circumstances, whereby the crème de la crème of global rugby talent generally lands in the cash-rich Aviva Premiership and Top 14.

Ulster’s Charles Piutau is the exception. He’s in the prime of his career, he’s coming off the back of an outstanding European debut with Wasps last season, and he has entered the Pro 12 as the league’s standout talent.

Ulster Rugby Press Conference, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 13/9/2016 Charles Piutau Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/Jonathan Porter

Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac labelled the 24-year-old as the ‘best player in the Pro 12′ in the build up to the Scarlets’ 19-8 loss at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday night and it wasn’t hard to see why.

Admittedly, Piutau didn’t have his greatest game in Ulster’s third successive win. There was no 50-metre break, he didn’t beat multiple defenders before setting up a teammate for an easy try, but what he did do was freeze the opposition. Time and time again, over and over, Piutau was able to freeze the Scarlets defence and it left gaps on the outside for his grateful teammates.

The former Auckland Blues utility back opens up opportunities for those around him that very few players can replicate.

Piutau can be devastating with ball in hand but he can also be highly dangerous without it. One particular example of Piutau’s off-the-ball creativity was a support line the New Zealander ran alongside galloping Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey.

At 6′ 2″, 17.5 st, McCloskey doesn’t necessarily need an invitation to initiate contact, but he was more or less prompted to get over the Scarlets gainline with Piutau running outside him.

Guinness PRO12, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 16/9/2016 Ulster vs Scarlets Ulster's Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Rhys Patchell and Jonathan Davies of Scarlets Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

The lightning quick feet and hands of Piutau scares defenders. Nothing will land you on the bench quicker in professional rugby than missing one-on-one tackles, especially if you’re an outside back, and Piutau is up there among the very best in world rugby at making defenders miss.

The Scarlets didn’t really seem to assign two defenders to the Aucklander, like Piutau hinted at in the lead up to the game, but at times they definitely sagged off the electrifying fullback, fully aware of the threat that he possesses.

In a backline that also contains the likes of Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Ruan Pienaar, Ulster can strike from anywhere and they can be simply devastating on the counter-attack.

The build up to South African winger Louis Ludik’s opening try was a perfect example of Ulster’s ability to move the ball and strike from anywhere.

Gilroy retrieved the ball from a standard clearing Scarlets kick, and with two passes wide, Olding found the ball in space before beating a defender and putting McCloskey away down the sideline.

After evading the cover defence and with just one defender to beat, McCloskey had the presence of mind to find a supporting Ludik who strolled over the line untouched for Ulster’s opening score of the game.

Les Kiss’ side teased and tantalised all evening, and Gilroy was desperately unlucky not to have scored a try of his own, after another blistering Ulster counter attack that was cut short just metres away from the tryline.

Guinness PRO12, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast 16/9/2016 Ulster vs Scarlets Scarlets' Liam Williams makes a try saving tackle on Craig Gilroy of Ulster Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/Brian Little

A 19-8 scoreline really doesn’t reflect just how dominant the Ulstermen were. A litany of errors and penalties in the opposition’s 22 made the game a lot more competitive than it should have been, and in truth, Ulster were very lucky not to be heading into the final ten minutes with a one-point lead had it not have been for a last gasp Piutau intercept on what would have been a certain Dave Bulbring try.

However, when the game did start to get away from Ulster, the hosts did benefit from the return of Jackson, who looked a lot more composed and assured at fly-half than he may have been at the beginning of last season.

Widely revered for the threat he poses with ball in hand, the Methody product steered Ulster around expertly with the boot finding the comfort of touch on a number of occasions.

His Ireland international teammate Iain Henderson also returned to his first competitive game of rugby by scoring Ulster’s final try of the evening. While Henderson wasn’t back to his bustling, abrasive best, he did put in his usual workman-like shift that we’ve been accustomed to seeing from the Craigavon native.

A late Will Boyle try did flatter the scoreline for the visitors, and while Ulster desperately need to work on converting pressure into points, the province will be pleased by the potential that their beaming backline possesses, particularly when they have Charles Piutau hovering around the edges.

Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.