New All-Black recruit Charles Piutau lit up Kingspan Stadium tonight as he scored a try and made two more in a ten-point victory over top Premiership outfit Northampton Saints in Ulster's final pre-season friendly.
Tries from Louis Ludik, Piutau and Rob Herring stunned the visitors in a faultless first half, and while Saints clawed back three scores in the second period, electric pace from Piutau set up the decisive fourth 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 Stade Toulousain exile Louis Picamoles to the party.
No more than 10 minutes had elapsed before Ah You booked his first stay in the Kingspan sinbin 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 crossfield 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 the versatile Lyttle.
The former Methodist College man added a penalty moments later as Picamoles saw yellow for a high tackle, and notched over his second conversion on 24 minutes after a signature darting run from 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 Rob Herring touched down off a perfectly-executed Ulster rolling maul, with Lyttle once again spot-on from the boot.
The youngster 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'.
Half-Time Score Ulster 24 Northampton 0
Sluggish defence from Ulster let prop Alex Waller in for a try with the second half three minutes old, but after weathering ten minutes' worth of persistent yet uninspired probing from Saints, an electric break from halfway by Piutau - looking more and more the real deal with every touch - gave Stockdale the try by the left-hand corner flag.
Northampton responded on the hour through Tom Collins, again by the flag, and grabbed another five minutes later as Juan Pablo Estelles was first to JJ Hanrahan's grubber kick, Stephen Myler converting.
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 fans now have only a week to wait before the season proper kicks off, with Newport-Gwent Dragons the visitors on Friday 2nd September.
(15-9): Charles Piutau; Jacob Stockdale, Louis Ludik, Stuart McCloskey, Robert Lyttle; Brett Herron, Paul Marshall
(1-8): Andy Warwick, Rob Herring (c), Rodney Ah You, Pete 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, Jonny McPhillips, Mark Best, Ciaran Treadwell, Steve Mulholland, Nick Timoney
(15-9): Ben Foden; Ken Pisi, Luther Burrell, Harry Mallinder, Ahsee Tuala; Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson
(1-8): Alex Waller, Dylan Hartley, Kieran Brookes, Michael Paterson, James Craig, Tom Wood (c), 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
Ulster A 48 Canada A 38
Prior to the Ulster v Northampton game, Ulster A, sponsored by CD Group, held off a spirited second half comeback by Canada A to win a thrilling encounter on a scoreline of 48-38.
Ulster started the game in bright fashion and some good work from Conall Boomer won a penalty, which Johnny McPhillips had no trouble in knocking over from 24m.
The first try of the game came on 14 minutes when Canada number 8 Admir Cejvanovic broke through the middle before Conor Keys bustled over from close range, but Gordon McRorie was unable to add the conversion.
On 23 minutes the lively Aaron Cairns picked up a grubber kick and slid in to put Ulster 8-5 in front, then five minutes later a driving maul rolled over the line and McPhillips added the extras to extend the lead to 15-5.
In the final two minutes of the half Ulster scored two tries in quick succession from Conor Fields and McPhillips, who converted both to put Ulster 29-5 ahead at the interval.
While Ulster finished the first half strongly, it was Canada who exploded into the second half with two tries in the opening three minutes from Kainoa Lloyd and McRorie to reduce the arrears to 12 points.
On 51 minutes Craig Trenier dived over from close range to stem the Canada tide and Fields added the extra points, having assumed kicking duties.
However, Canada continued to surge forward and were rewarded with another quickfire brace of tries on 53 and 56 minutes. There was now a single figure deficit between the sides, Ulster 36 Canada 31.
The hosts' spirited display was rewarded on 68 minutes as they touched down again to level the game for the first time, but Man of the Match Nick Timoney responded a minute later with a superb individual try to edge Ulster 43-38 ahead.
In the final ten minutes Ulster continued to pile on pressure but Canada also looked menacing on the counter attack. With time running out Ulster replacement hooker Adam McBurney touched down off the back of a huge driving maul to secure the win for his team.