Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Billy Stickland/INPHO McCloskey is hoping that Ulster can shrug off their URC inconsistency as they open another European campaign.
# Iron Man
McCloskey focusing on his 'superpowers' as he tries to turn Farrell's head with Ulster form
Ulster open their Champions Cup campaign against Jono Gibbes and Clermont this evening.

IT WAS AN autumn to remember for Ireland, what with a memorable win over the All Blacks to celebrate and a devastating new fluid attacking style that also accounted for Japan and Argentina.

For some, however, it also came hand in hand with frustration. Nine players were down at Carton House and saw no action during any of the three games and, while sharing in the team’s delight, it would have been soured with the disappointment of not seeing a minute on the pitch.

One of those was Stuart McCloskey. Behind Bundee Aki initially, and then seeing a potential start against Los Pumas stolen away when Robbie Henshaw returned ahead of schedule, it was another trip to camp that yielded no minutes for the abrasive inside centre.

“The team are playing unbelievable rugby, some of the shape they’ve ran and built in over the last year has been incredible and I think it’s only starting to come together now. You probably saw it in those last three games,” praised the Ulster man.

“On a personal level it’s been disappointing not to be involved a bit more, but I understand Andy picking Bundee or Robbie, they both have a lot of credit in the bank at the moment and they’re both playing well, they were both Lions over the summer.

“Probably over the next six or seven weeks I’ll play well, hopefully get back in there and if I get a chance, take it.”

It is rare to hear a player so understanding at not playing. Don’t mistake it for acceptance, as McCloskey is honest enough to admit he’s not happy being stuck on just five caps in green, but rather an awareness of the embarrassment of riches Ireland have in the No.12 jersey currently.

“I think Robbie plays that game very well and he’s probably the in-form centre in the world right now. If I was Andy (Farrell), I would pick Robbie at the minute, he’s played class over the last 12 months,” concedes the Bangor man.

“In my opinion, he’s the best 12 in the world at the minute, so I’m striving to push him and get better myself and force (Andy’s) hand if I ever get to the stage where I’m better than (Robbie). I’m working on my game, doing my own game.

“We do different things well, so I’m trying to make my superpowers, like off-loading, better as well.”

If off-loading is a superpower, then McCloskey was Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Hulk rolled into one at the Stadium last week. It may have been in a losing effort against the Ospreys, but the 29-year-old was a stand-out for Ulster as he led them in successful carries (14) and accounted for exactly a third of their 15 off-loads.

It’s those kinds of statistics that, along with doing the basics well, he is hoping will catch Andy Farrell’s eye between now and the Six Nations and have him in the mix for Ireland again, but first and foremost he has his sights set on leading Ulster to the promised land of the European knockouts for the first time since 2019.

Given their recent inconsistency, it’s tough to say where Ulster truly stand within European circles as they prepare to open their Heineken Champions Cup slate by reuniting with former head coach Jono Gibbes and his Clermont side at the Stade Marcel-Michelin this evening (5.30pm Irish time).

Their recent win over Leinster, even as under-strength as the Dubliners were, suggests they aren’t as far away as some may think, but capitulating against Connacht and failing to back up their RDS triumph at the Ospreys a week later suggests the opposite.

“I’d say we’re probably not one of the favourites but I definitely think on our day we have the strength to beat any team, particularly at home and when you get into the knockout stages anything can happen. But I wouldn’t put us among the favourites,” admits McCloskey.

“Being more consistent is something we’ve been getting better at. I know the weekend didn’t show that but it’s definitely something we’re working towards as a team and we’re building that strength in depth to be able to go week in, week out and make a few changes and get the results.”

But one thing is certain, playing in Europe tends to elevate the performance levels within the Ulster squad and this should be no exception. Travelling to the Auvergne and having added another superhero to their ranks – Duane “Thor” Vermeulen – they hope it could another memorable outing on the continent.

“All my best memories of playing for Ulster are in Europe, those big games. We watched some clips earlier of past years and it brings back class memories,” smiles McCloskey.

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“It’s always a full house at home and some of the crowds you get to play in front of away when they’re full. Always plenty of good memories for me and always good games.

“I’ve played (in Clermont) twice there now and haven’t won yet. They’ve been relatively good games both times. There’s metal boardings, they were getting slammed and you could barely hear yourself think. It’s a great place to go, one of the best club rugby stadiums about.”

ASM Clermont Auvergne

15. Cheikh Tiberghien; 14. Damian Penaud, 13. Jean-Pascal Barraque, 12. Tani Vili, 11. Alivereti Raka; 10. JJ Hanrahan, 9. Kevin Viallard; 1. Peni Ravai, 2. Yohan Beheregaray, 3. Rabah Slimani; 4. Jacobus van Tonder, 5. Sébastien Vahaamahina; 6. Arthur Iturria (captain), 7. Peceli Yato, 8. Fritz Lee.

Replacements: 16. Benjamin Boudou, 17. Étienne Falgoux, 18. Cristian Ojovan, 19. Thibaud Lanen, 20. Lucas Dessaigne, 21. Sébastien Bézy, 22. Gabin Michet, 23. Marvin O’Connor.

Ulster Rugby

15. Mike Lowry; 14. Robert Baloucoune, 13. James Hume, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Ethan McIlroy; 10. Billy Burns, 9. John Cooney; 1. Andrew Warwick, 2. Rob Herring, 3. Tom O’Toole; 4. Alan O’Connor (captain), 5. Kieran Treadwell; 6. Marcus Rea, 7. Nick Timoney, 8. Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: 16. John Andrew, 17. Jack McGrath, 18. Ross Kane, 19. Sam Carter, 20. Greg Jones, 21. Nathan Doak, 22. Stewart Moore, 23. Sean Reidy.

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

Bernard Jackman, Niamh Briggs, and Murray Kinsella discuss a massive weekend of Champions Cup rugby for the four Irish provinces.

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