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'If I'm playing well for Ulster then there's no reason I can't do it for Ireland'

Today’s clash with Leinster offers Stuart McCloskey an opportunity to make a Six Nations statement.

Stuart McCloskey Ulster and Ireland centre Stuart McCloskey. Source: William Cherry/INPHO

WHILE THE FIRST-CHOICE centre pairing for Ireland will likely be involved on the blue side of today’s Guinness Pro14 clash between Leinster and Ulster [KO 5.35pm, TG4, Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Action], there’s one person hoping that won’t be obvious.

With the Six Nations rapidly approaching, and most of their opposition to the starting jerseys either injured or struggling for form, it’s likely that the dynamic Leinster pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will once again be utilised by Joe Schmidt.

It’s a duo who have a good track record for province and country, and it’s no secret that Schmidt is a fan of both the strong running of Henshaw and the creativity of Ringrose on his outside.

They’ll reunite at the RDS today as Leo Cullen’s charges aim to make it a clean sweep of interprovincial victories over the festive period against an Ulster side very much blowing hot and cold. There’s more than league points at stake, though. For Stuart McCloskey, this is a chance to make a point — even if the man himself doesn’t see it along those lines.

“I haven’t really thought about it that way to be honest,” the Bangor man ponders. “I’m just thinking about going out and doing the job Les [Kiss] has set for me.

I always look at it that if I’m playing well for Ulster then there’s no reason I can’t do it for Ireland. I just concentrate on going out there and doing the role he has for me for the game.”

Still, after a November series where McCloskey didn’t stand out quite as much as he might have liked, these games are the perfect opportunity to showcase to the national coach that he’s a viable option for the green jersey.

“Bits and pieces,” he admits with a grin when asked if he got any of the famous Joe Schmidt work-ons the coach is renowned for handing out after each camp.

“I thought I improved my work-rate over the summer. I think I’m fitter than I’ve ever been, which shows. I haven’t really been injured this year — touch wood — and I’ve played 80 minutes in most games.

“I think my distribution has been better this year. I think I’ve played well this year but there’s always bits and pieces to work on, and even guys like Robbie [Henshaw], who’s starting at 12, he’ll have things to work on as well.

“Centre is a tough position to get into at the minute with Robbie, Ringer [Ringrose], Bundee [Aki], [Chris] Farrell, [Rory] Scannell, myself, Lukey [Marshall]… there’s a pile-up which there wasn’t three years ago when I played first. There was about two of us and now everybody’s queuing up!”

Stuart McCloskey and Ben Volavola McCloskey on the charge against Fiji. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With the added rivalry of the interpros and, naturally, that extra bit of spice when coming up against national team-mates, a big performance today would go a long way towards furthering McCloskey’s cause.

He was rewarded for some excellent early-season performances at Ulster with a start against Fiji in the November Test series. However, being snubbed for the games against South Africa and Argentina only steeled his resolve to improve.

Leading his province to a win at a venue where they’ve only managed one victory since 1999 would be a good start, even though not many are giving them a chance to succeed. That one win — a gutsy 22-18 outcome in March 2013 — masks an unprecedented Leinster dominance in Dublin that sees them possess something of a mental stranglehold over their northern cousins.

Not that it fazes McCloskey. In fact, “I didn’t know that,” he laughs when told that Ulster have only managed one win there in 18 years. A good mindset to be in, then.

He continues: “Yeah, it is tough to win down there, but if you look at any team, they struggle to have a good record there. Off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone who wins comfortably there. Leinster have been the best team in the Pro14 for the last seven, eight years but we’ll go down there and try to put our game-plan in place and see what happens.”

Away from the game as a singular aspect, in the context of the season as a whole there needs to be an upturn for Ulster from their consistent inconsistency. While they’ve had notable successes over the Scarlets, Wasps and Harlequins, those have been offset by too many poor performances against the likes of La Rochelle, Leinster and Connacht.

Even last week’s bonus-point win over Munster featured possibly the biggest turnaround in fortunes as a horrendous first-half performance was replaced by a completely unexpected bounce-back in the second half.

With Edinburgh now breathing down their necks for third place in Conference B of the Pro14, there’s very little room for manoeuvre if they keep dropping points, particularly with trips to Parc y Scarlets, Myreside and Thomond Park still to come.

Stuart McCloskey McCloskey in possession for Ulster during the win against Munster on New Year's Day. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We might not have played brilliantly all year but there’s been a lot of heart, and a lot of passion,” McCloskey explains. “We’ve come back from behind a few times — the draw with the Dragons, Scarlets at home, Munster.

“It shows the guys are trying hard. We just need to be more clinical. People saying there’s no heart, no passion, and people aren’t doing it for the badge, that’s completely inaccurate. Cavey [Darren Cave] did an interview where he summed it up perfectly. There’s no lack of heart and passion in this team. Maybe our skill level hasn’t been there, but when we put it together you can see how good we can be.

“We’ve lost four out of 16, Leinster have lost three and they’re talked about as the best team in Europe, so we can’t be doing that badly. We’re not too far off but obviously, there are things we’d like to be doing better. We’re going down to Leinster, and it’s the toughest game you’ll get either in Europe or the Pro14, so we’ll try and put our game in place and hopefully get a result.”

Unfortunately for Ulster, you suspect they’ll need more than ‘hopefully’ to get the win.

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Adam McKendry

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