Piutau inspires Ulster to precious European victory
Ulster 19 Wasps 9
Far too often in recent years Ulster have been guilty of retreating into their shells at the crucial moments of big games but last night at the Kingspan Stadium, they went some way to ensuring that they won't make the same mistake again this season.
Their Champions Cup campaign is off to a flyer and the gritty manner in which they dug deep to put Wasps to the sword will stand to them ahead of a tricky trip to La Rochelle.
Ulster have a sizeable hole to fill next season when Charles Piutau leaves for Bristol but in Jacob Stockdale, they have a hugely exciting home-grown talent who is destined for the top. The electric duo linked brilliantly all evening and Wasps had no answer to their creativity.
Iain Henderson has been asked to play more of a leadership role this season, particularly now that Rory Best is out injured, and on his first occasion as Ulster captain, he made what ultimately proved to be the match-winning call.
With Ulster trailing 9-3 in the second half, the easy option was to take the three points but Henderson pointed to the corner and Stockdale eventually scored.
Such fine margins are what these big European games are won and lost on and while Ulster have been guilty of going missing when the going gets tough, they certainty stood up this time.
Stockdale's try swung the game in Ulster's favour and when the outstanding winger created the second for Stuart McCloskey two minutes later, it ensured that the home side inflicted a fifth straight defeat on Wasps.
Elliot Daly kicked a long-range penalty from just inside the Ulster half to give Wasps an early lead after three minutes. John Cooney had a chance to repeat Daly's trick from a similar distance but his kick sailed wide. But Cooney made no mistake with an easy penalty to bring the home side level after a searing Stockdale break.
The momentum was very much with Wasps and when they set up a rolling maul, it looked as if they would barrel their way over but Henderson forced the turnover.
There was still time in the first half for fussy referee Ben Whitehouse to award a staggering 12th penalty and this time former Leinster out-half Jimmy Gopperth stepped up and gave Wasps a slender 6-3 lead at the break.
Much to the home crowd's frustration, the second half began just as the first had ended as the ref awarded yet another penalty. Gopperth again bisected the posts to open up a six-point lead.
Piutau, however, was beginning to see more of the ball and Wasps were terrified every time he got it. It was another one of the Kiwi's breaks that brought Ulster deep into Wasps territory and when they won a kickable penalty, Henderson made the pivotal call.
He backed his pack and called the lineout to himself. Eventually the ball was worked wide for Christian Lealiifano who dived over the line but the TMO ruled that the Australian knocked it on.
But Ulster kept their foot firmly on Wasps throat and they were rewarded for their pressure 15 minutes after the restart.
It was no surprise that Piutau was the architect again. He bamboozled the Wasps defence before feeding Stockdale who still had a lot of work to do to score in the corner but the talented 21-year-old made it look easy.
Cooney missed the chance to put the hosts into the lead for the first time but they didn't have to wait long to do so as two minutes later, they were over for their second try.
Piutau linked brilliantly with Stockdale again and just as it looked like the winger would be forced into touch, he threw an audacious offload back inside for McCloskey who crashed over for a stunning try. Cooney was wayward with another touchline conversion but nevertheless Ulster went 13-9 in front with 23 minutes remaining. That was Cooney's last involvement as he was replaced and the change of kicker in Lealiifano worked a treat as he extended the lead with a 69th-minute penalty.
Wasps were beginning to run out of ideas and they finished the game with 14 men when Josh Bassett was sent to sin bin for a high tackle on Louis Ludik. Lealiifano fired over the resulting penalty to ensure that Ulster go to France next week with a precious win under their belts.
Ulster - C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall (T Bowe 69), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney (P Marshall 64); K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst (R Ah You 64); K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt); R Diack, S Reidy, J Deysel (C Ross 64).
Wasps - W le Roux; C Wade, E Daly, B Macken (R Miller 17), J Bassett; J Gopperth, D Robson; M Mullan, T Cruse (A Johnson 14), J Cooper-Woolley (M Moore 68); J Launchbury (capt), W Rowlands (J Gaskell 61); J Haskell, T Young (J Willis h-t), N Hughes.
REF - B Whitehouse (Wales)
Subscribe to The Left Wing, Independent.ie's Rugby podcast, with Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery for the best discussion and analysis each week. From in depth interviews with some of Irish rugby's biggest stars to unmatched insights into the provinces and the national team, The Left Wing has all your rugby needs covered.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.