New All Black recruit Charles Piutau lit up Kingspan Stadium tonight as he scored a try and made two more in a 29-19 victory over top Aviva Premiership outfit Northampton Saints in Ulster’s final pre-season friendly.
PRE-SEASON FRIENDLY: Friday, August 26
ULSTER 29 NORTHAMPTON SAINTS 19, Kingspan Stadium
Scorers: Ulster: Tries: Louis Ludik, Charles Piutau, Rob Herring, Jacob Stockdale; Cons: Robert Lyttle 2; Pen: Robert Lyttle
Northampton Saints: Tries: Alex Waller, Tom Collins, Juan Pablo Estelles; Cons: Stephen Myler, JJ Hanrahan
Tries from Louis Ludik, Charles Piutau and Rob Herring stunned the visitors in a faultless first half from Ulster, and while Saints clawed back three scores in the second period, electric pace from Piutau set up the decisive fourth touchdown for Jacob Stockdale to cap an impressive individual display from the full-back.
While both teams were far from full strength, Ulster started with big name new recruits Piutau and Rodney Ah You in their ranks, while Northampton brought England captain Dylan Hartley and Toulouse exile Louis Picamoles to the party.
No more than 10 minutes had elapsed before Ah You booked his first stay in the Kingspan Stadium sin-bin for a borderline tip tackle, but staunch Ulster defence held Saints at bay, and a sublime take by Piutau from out-half Brett Herron’s cross-field kick set up the first score for a short-handed Ulster five minutes later.
A quick exchange between the Kiwi and Academy winger Robert Lyttle created the space for Ludik, playing at centre, to barge over for the try, converted by versatile youngster Lyttle.
The former Methodist College pupil added a penalty moments later as Picamoles saw yellow for a high tackle, and notched his second conversion on 24 minutes after a signature darting run from Paul Marshall, quick offload and long pass found Piutau on the right wing for his first try in Ulster colours.
The third try, grounded five minutes before the break, was less about craft than it was brute force, as home skipper Herring touched down off a perfectly-executed Ulster rolling maul, with Lyttle once again spot on with the boot for a 24-0 advantage.
The Ireland underage international even came closer to capping a flawless half with a breakaway try a minute from the whistle after intercepting deep in his own half, only brought to ground by the Northampton chasers as he careered into their 22.
Sluggish defence from Ulster let prop Alex Waller in for a try with the second half just three minutes old, but after weathering ten minutes’ worth of persistent yet uninspired probing from Saints, an electric break from halfway and sublime offload by Piutau – looking more and more the real deal with every touch – gave Stockdale the try by the left corner flag.
Northampton responded on the hour through Tom Collins, again out wide, and grabbed another five minutes later as Juan Pablo Estelles was first to JJ Hanrahan’s grubber kick, with Stephen Myler and Hanrahan landing both conversions for 29-12.
Ulster regrouped well to withstand the barrage of final Northampton onslaughts, and a lap of honour from Piutau – already a fan favourite by all accounts – at the final whistle received the ovation it deserved.
The Kingspan Stadium fans now have only a week to wait before the season proper kicks off, with the Newport Gwent Dragons the visitors for the opening night of the 2016/17 GUINNESS PRO12.
ULSTER: Charles Piutau; Jacob Stockdale, Louis Ludik, Stuart McCloskey, Robert Lyttle; Brett Herron, Paul Marshall; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring (capt), Rodney Ah You, Peter Browne, Franco van der Merwe, Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: John Andrew, Callum Black, Ross Kane, Alan O’Connor, Conor Joyce, Matthew Rea, David Shanahan, Sam Windsor, David Busby, Johnny McPhillips, Mark Best, Kieran Treadwell, Stephen Mulholland, Nick Timoney.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Ben Foden; Ken Pisi, Luther Burrell, Harry Mallinder, Ahsee Tuala; Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson; Alex Waller, Dylan Hartley, Kieran Brookes, Michael Paterson, James Craig, Tom Wood (capt), Jamie Gibson, Louis Picamoles.
Replacements: Campese Ma’afu, Mikey Haywood, Paul Hill, Courtney Lawes, Jordan Onojaife, Reece Marshall, Lewis Ludlam, Sam Dickinson, Nic Groom, JJ Hanrahan, Howard Packman, George Pisi, Juan Pablo Estelles, Tom Collins, George Furbank.