Moulding midfield partnership with Hume and 'doing stuff differently' for another Munster showdown

The sides will meet in the URC quarter-final on Friday.

Stuart McCloskey on the ball for Ulster.
Stuart McCloskey on the ball for Ulster.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

ASSUMING DAN McFARLAND doesn’t pull a shock selection call this afternoon, when they line up alongside each other in tomorrow night’s United Rugby Championship quarter-final against Munster, Stuart McCloskey and James Hume will partner each other in Ulster’s midfield for the 13th time this season.

They’ve been the reliable go-to men for the head coach all season, with at least one of them starting all but one of Ulster’s 26 games since the start of the campaign, and have formed a dynamic partnership that has yielded eight tries and played its part in setting up plenty more for team-mates.

Hume has been rewarded for his form with an Ireland call-up for the Six Nations, and a couple of appearances too, while McCloskey missed out on selection due to an untimely injury over Christmas, but there’s no doubting their importance within their provincial squad. Every time another player showed glimpses of promising form, be it Stewart Moore or Angus Curtis, back came the No.1 pairing with a reminder of what they do best.

Their styles compliment each other, McCloskey’s direct, abrasive nature punching holes in defences for the elusive, fleet-footed Hume to dance through, and McFarland will be imploring them to do the same again when they welcome their inter-provincial rivals to Kingspan Stadium tomorrow for their last-eight tie. And, as McCloskey outlines, the load is halved by how well the two play together – and, fortunately, it comes easy to them.

“It’s not something we’ve really worked on. Time together training and playing obviously helps, we get a feel for each other’s styles. We blend well together as a centre partnership, the things we do,” he explains.

“It obviously helps that James is a great player. At times this year I’d say he’s probably been one of the best 13s in the world and he’s still playing some great stuff now. It’s easy when a guy’s playing like that, sometimes you just give him the ball and get out of his way! That’s what it’s felt like for me, and hopefully he feels like I’ve helped him along as well.”

With the imposing figures of Damian de Allende and Chris Farrell likely to oppose them in Belfast tomorrow evening, there will be a need to be at the peak of their powers as the World Cup-winning Springbok and Ulster native are likely to be one of the toughest – if not the toughest – pairings they’ll have faced all season.

“Damian is a decent player, he’s played well all year. I don’t think there’s much between us, we’re both pretty good 12s, and Chrissy and James will be going at it pretty hard, they always do when they play each other. I’m sure that’ll be an interesting one to watch,” adds McCloskey.

While those four take centre stage, there is a tasty sub-plot simmering under the surface at Kingspan Stadium as, not only is there an added spice to the tie given it is an inter-pro, there is also burning desire within the Ulster squad not to be turned over three times by Munster this season, twice of which would be at home should the result go against them this time too.

True, you could probably write off that game a few weeks ago when Ulster clearly showed the battle scars of their brutal knockout at the hands of Toulouse the previous week but, even so, that will naturally galvanise Johann van Graan’s men as a way of showing them that it can be done.

McCloskey jokes that statistically it is unlikely they could lose to the same team three times in one season but equally brushes off the regular season record between the two teams, instead opting to look at this game in isolation for what it is – a win or bust knockout tie.

“No more than anybody else,” he insists when asked if he feels Ulster owe Munster one.

“I haven’t thought much about it. They’ve obviously beaten us twice. The game here was a tough one after the defeat to Toulouse the week before, maybe we can understand being a bit deflated after that. We did some stuff pretty badly and they did some nice stuff. We probably gave them a couple easy tries and let them get ahead of us and we struggled to get back into it.

“We’ll be doing some stuff differently and they’ll be coming back after a disappointing performance against Leinster and being knocked out of Europe by Toulouse. We played well the last couple weeks so hopefully we’ll bounce into it in a bit of form.

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“Two weeks ago against the Sharks I thought for 75 minutes we played really well. That was back to more like how we want to play and we could have scored a few more tries in there. We’ll take confidence from that and hopefully take that into this game, but it’s an inter-pro, you never know how it’s going to go sometimes. There’s a different atmosphere going into them.”

Inevitably, at this stage of the season, the usual questions over whether this Ulster side will be the one to end the long trophy drought that stretches back to 2006. McCloskey, as one of the veterans of this young squad despite still only being 29, is perhaps best placed to answer why he feels this group is different and he maintains this could be their time.

“It’s a better team than I’ve played in over the last few years and those teams got pretty close to winning something. I know we’ve beaten Clermont twice, Leinster twice – even though it’s been a weakened team for one of those – and on our day we’ve been very good this year,” the Bangor man states.

“We need to turn it on for three weeks in a row and I think we can do that. It’ll take a little bit of luck as well but over the years we haven’t had much, so surely we’ve built up some over that period of time.”

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