Ulster to face New Zealand heavy opposition in Scarlets
ULSTER'S marquee signing Charles Piuatu may be new to the PRO12 but he will be in direct opposition to a few familiar faces when the province takes on the Scarlets on Friday at the Kingspan Stadium.
Scarlets' head coach Wayne Pivak is a New Zealander as is centre Hadleigh Parkes, who will be joined in the midfield by British and Irish Lion Jonathan Davies tonight. Piuatu played for Auckland Blues when they were coached by Pivak, and was a team mate of Parkes, while the Ulster full-back has seen what Davies can do at first-hand when playing for the All Blacks against Wales.
"I obviously know my two fellow country men pretty well and I have a lot of respect for them; Wayne was a very influential figure when he had a lot of involvement in the early stages of my career and he knew how to bring best out of me so I'm very grateful to him," said Piuatu.
"I saw Williams in a test match when he played against us and he's a very strong ball carrier so hopefully he doesn't do too much of that against us."
Piutau says he has settled in well after his arrival from Wasps last season and, if anything, living and playing rugby in Belfast has exceeded his expectations: "I guess when I was watching from afar, I saw the quality of players that were coming here and their skill-set surpasses what I thought," he added.
"The facilities are fantastic, the crowd and atmosphere with Friday night football at the Kingspan is awesome and everything has lived up to my expectations and beyond. The biggest thing for me was to find out how players around me tick, what their attributes are and try and compliment each other on the field but it's still early stages."
Piutau missed last week's win over Treviso in Italy with a minor injury but returns to the side tonight as one of eight new faces in the starting line-up. Callum Black, Pete Browne, Alan O'Connor and Robbie Diack bolster the pack, while Craig Gilroy returns to the back-line after injury.
Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson comes in for his first appearance of the season while his fellow international Iain Henderson will start on the bench. Rob Herring, who is sharing the captaincy this season with Andrew Trimble, will win his 100th cap tonight when he'll be hoping to add to the three tries he has already scored in consecutive matches.
The Scarlets have been something of a bogey team as far as Ulster have been concerned and last season they completed a PRO12 home and away double. However, they have yet to pick up a point in the current campaign while Ulster have two wins out of two and nine points out of a possible 10 to their name.
"I have heard they have a lot of power in their back-line and great team strengths throughout the park; not having won their last two games makes them even more dangerous," warned Piuatu.
Scarlets' head coach Pivak has made eight changes to the side that lost to Edinburgh last week: "It doesn't get any easier but we take confidence from the fact that we had a great performance in Belfast last year so we know within the group of players we have here that it can be done," he said.