Family, faith, vision and sidesteps: The Charles Piutau Story

As the great Brian O'Driscoll assessed Charles Piutau's performance for Ulster against Exeter Chiefs at the weekend, he summed up the winger's unique skillset with four, short words: "He just has everything". When O'Driscoll says that about a player, you listen.

Since Piutau moved to Wasps last season and then took up his two-year contract with Ulster, he has been the standout player in European rugby. This is how Piutau came to be at Ulster; a man driven by faith, family and a competitive streak born from wanting to emulate his older brother, Siale.

The vision of the black jersey

Piutau was 13 when Pastor William Hola's vision changed his life.

The youngest of 10 siblings, Piutau was always a competitive sort. He grew up in Auckland, living in a garage adjoining the family house with his four brothers. There was a healthy competitiveness between them -- dinner time was a case of "get in early or you miss out", according to Piutau.

They grew up playing rugby in the back garden with Jonah Lomu's name frequently called out as they pretended to be their heroes.

Lomu had a big influence on the young Charles. As a student at the same school as Lomu -- Wesley College -- from an early age he stared at the honours board which included the results of the 1989 athletics championships. One name sits aside the list as the winner of the 100 metres, 100 metre hurdles, 200 metres, 400 metres, discus, shot put, javelin, long jump, high jump and triple jump: J. Lomu.

His brothers took rugby seriously but just one of the four -- Siale -- made it professionally. Charles was talented as a youngster but it took Hola's vision to map out his life, one which had a pre-destination about him one day becoming an All Black.

"We were at a youth camp in Auckland and the pastor was praying for a few of the youth and he saw a vision of me playing in a black jersey," Piutau told ESPN. "So I asked him: 'Is it an All Blacks jersey?' He said yeah. From that day onwards everything was aligned and I knew I was to pursue that black jersey.

"My parents backed me to have a career in sport and that was really helpful. When you are Wesley College, everything helped with my development."

It was older brother Siale who had perhaps the greatest influence on him. They played together at Wasps last year but as Siale started making the grade at Counties Manukau in about 2006 Charles watched on and dreamt of similar success.

"He's six years older than me so I was always able to speak to Siale, share advice on what it takes and things like that," Piutau said. "That was really helpful having him there to help me with my rugby career. I remember in high school he was sponsored by Lotto so I got lots of hand-me-down old gear.

"But there was a time when I was playing rugby and I took it for granted. He used to tell me that I needed to work hard and never let up or take my position as guaranteed. He told me to stay calm and back myself. He also helped me with some positional stuff which he could pass on to me as an outside back."

Siale cut his teeth in the centres but it was the wing where Charles found his home. He was brought into the Auckland Rugby system and watched in awe as Joe Rokocoko, Brent Ward, Isaia Toeava caused havoc on the flank. At a younger age Carlos Spencer and Rupeni Caucaunibuca caught his imagination as did the late, great Lomu and in 2012 he finally achieved his dream of running out for the Blues in Super Rugby.

All Blacks honours followed -- he made his debut in June 2013 against France -- but he missed out on a spot in their 2015 World Cup squad and then came the call from Ulster.

A leap into the unknown

For his whole life he had lived in and around Auckland, been near his brothers but he felt he needed a change.

"It took a lot of thinking and I talked to a lot of people close to me," Piutau said. "I felt I needed to get out of the comfort zone, get out of New Zealand and try something new, try something different.

"I am the youngest of 10 and I had find my own two feet. I was talking to the recruitment officer at Ulster and the potential of the club was a huge draw card."

The plan was to spend one last season with the Blues but the NZRU prevented him from playing in the 2016 Super Rugby competition so he took up a short-term offer at Wasps.

He was a revelation at the Aviva Premiership side and the experience was further enhanced by them drafting in Siale to play in the same backline as Charles. Wasps were understandably keen to keep him but he stuck to his word and joined Ulster.

"I heard a lot about the Friday night games from the fans on social media. The experience is exactly what they told me it would be like, it's brilliant," Piutau said. "The crowds here are so vocal. I enjoyed Wasps but it was only ever going to be short-term."

Ulster are now enjoying the benefits of Piutau's unrivalled talent, both in attack and defence.

The intercept and vision

One of the most remarkable pieces of individual skill this season did not lead to a try, or contribute to points on the board but instead it was brilliant defensive intuition.

"The reward was much bigger than the risk," Piutau tells ESPN, remembering the passage of play in Ulster's win over the Scarlets back in September where his gamble to step out of the line to intercept a certain try-scoring pass saved his side. "I know there was a high chance of them scoring a try so I just backed myself and went for it."

Defensively sound he may be, but it was his work in attack which caught O'Driscoll's eye at the weekend. He has an unbelievable ability to find space with the subtlest of steps.

"Physically it might feel like you are separated but as a fullback you are covering space," Piutau said. "You are trying to make sure the opposition can't see space to kick to so you are covering if anyone breaks through.

"At the same time you are working with the wingers so there's a lot of communication happening. It's a busy role. You are more involved with the game than just talking and covering space.

"But then you get a chance. So looking at a defender, you can see what direction they are about to head in through their shoulders. If it's the forwards you know you have a chance of getting around them with pace and footwork."

Ulster supporters will enjoy that pace and footwork for what they hope is a while longer.

He is relishing life in Belfast and watching on proudly back in Auckland are his four brothers Hakaei, Robert, Siale and Andy. They are a huge part of the reason why figures like O'Driscoll are watching in awe but Ulster fans can also thank Pastor William Hola and Piutau's faith.

"Every game is dedicated to God and thanking him for my skills, playing for my family. I enjoy it and love being in that moment. It's what I love to do, to play this game after a week of training and prepping. I just love it."