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McCloskey and Ulster look to take the next step in Europe

Dan McFarland’s side face Leicester Tigers later bidding to reach the knockout stages for the first time in five years.

McCloskey celebrates last week's win over Racing 92.
McCloskey celebrates last week's win over Racing 92.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

PRIOR TO THE start of the season, Stuart McCloskey balked when confronted with the fact that he was one of the more experienced members of the now youthful Ulster squad.

“Our changing room is done on caps, so Rory [Best] is at the top and I move around a lot, and I laughed because I’m moving up, I didn’t think I was here that long,” he laughed back in July.

“I think that’s just a thing that comes with age, I’m getting on a bit but I don’t think I’m too old.

“But looking at the backs’ session, I was the third oldest and that is strange.”

Since then, however, things have only served to push him further up the list of experienced names in the squad. Jean Deysel, Pete Browne and Chris Henry have all retired and Rodney Ah You is now in Newcastle.

When it’s all said and done, McCloskey is Ulster’s eighth-highest capped player in the squad, and at just 26, still has plenty of rugby left in the tank to give to his province.

His seniority is reflected in both his durability and reliability for Dan McFarland, who has played him in 15 of Ulster’s 17 games this season, starting all but one of those appearances and playing 80 minutes in 13 of them.

“It’s scary,” he says with a small smile. “Aaron Sexton was in training with us in the summer and he was 17.

“I’m 26, so I’ve still got a few years left ahead of me. I maybe take on more of a leadership role, and the body maybe starts to feel it more after games.”

One role he’s happy he’s not continuing on, however, is goal-kicking after his previous stint doing it in 2015.

“I wanted no part in it,” laughs the centre of the prospect of kicking last week against Racing when both John Cooney and Billy Burns were unavailable.

“I think I was 15th choice… I’ve served my time there and no more.”

With the expanded role at Ulster, he’s been excelling, working a nice partnership with the now nationally capped Will Addison in midfield and having deservedly earned himself the inside centre jersey on a weekly basis.

Stuart McCloskey with Finn Russell McCloskey has been in good form for Ulster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Particularly in a youthful backline he’s been key to what Ulster are trying to do moving forward too, particularly in being a mentor to academy centre James Hume as he begins to make strides in the professional game.

For now, however, that role within the team can be set aside. This weekend the focus will be solely on getting the job done in Welford Road and reaching the Heineken Champions Cup knockouts for the first time since 2014.

Last weekend’s victory over Racing 92 has Ulster on the precipice of qualifying for the last eight, something which was unthinkable when the pools came out before the season.

“It would be amazing [to qualify],” says McCloskey. “I’ve never got to the quarter-finals of Europe and that’s in four or five years, so it’s something that we’re really aiming for and we know we’ve put ourselves in the position to get there.

“Yeah it’s good to be back there again. Last year we were pretty close, even though we didn’t have a great year overall, and we struggled the year before, but we’re normally there or thereabouts so it’s just about taking that last step and getting there.”

They certainly come into the game high on confidence, as highlighted by the roar that accompanied Addison booting the ball off the pitch at full-time of last weekend’s victory.

With their full strength side in full flow, as seen against the Scarlets, there is a lot to like about what Ulster can do as they showed in tearing apart their Welsh opposition twice.

It’s a direct parallel to their middling form in the Guinness Pro14, which has them fifth in Conference B, but that’s all part of the process that this squad is going through.

But with the squad riding the crest of a wave, with the carrot of a last eight spot dangling in front of them, the boost that a reappearance in the knockouts of Europe would provide to a young dressing room would be hugely beneficial in bringing them on.

“I think we’ve seen that when we have our best 15 out on the pitch we’re a good match for anyone, we’ve maybe just struggled when we’ve had a few boys missing,” says McCloskey.

“We seem to have come out on the right side of a lot of [close] games like that this year, I don’t know whether that’s due to a change in attitude by us, or, I’m not really sure.

“It doesn’t feel much different but we’re confident coming into the end of games. We got that win against Edinburgh at the start of the year, the one against Scarlets, the turnover at the end, we just seem to be coming out on the right side. Hopefully, it keeps going like that.”

Ulster have, of course, had memorable days at Welford Road in the past. A certain Ruan Pienaar-inspired solo performance saw them go six-from-six in the pool stage back in 2014, and now they can culminate this pool stage five-from-six at the same venue.

Louis Ludik tackled by Vereniki Geoneva and Fraser Balmain Ulster have good memories of Welford Road. Source: Presseye/Andrew Fosker/INPHO

A different outcome, yes, and one which would likely only be good enough for second place in the pool, but in the context of the two squads, it’s just as big an achievement.

Indeed, they don’t even need a win to take their place in the last eight, but that won’t stop them from approaching it as if they do.

“We’re just taking the mindset that we need to go to Leicester and win and not worry about other results going our way,” insists McCloskey. “They [other results] didn’t go our way last year so we know not to wait for them.”

Of course, there’s always a danger in facing a side that’s already eliminated from the competition such as Leicester are, as Ulster themselves have proven in the past.

Indeed, back in 2015 a hat-trick from Darren Cave denied the Tigers a spot in the last eight, and McCloskey is hopeful that their English hosts won’t do something similar to them today [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport].

“Hopefully they don’t remember that,” he grins. “I know if that was us we’d be going out there and trying a few things and it could go either way.

“Sometimes you can go out and everything will go for you or it might not, but we’ve just got to take our gameplan in and what we’re preparing for and what we think we’ll do, so we’ve just got to worry about ourselves.”

Leicester Tigers:

15. Jonah Holmes
14. Jonny May
13. Manu Tuilagi
12. Matt Toomua
11. Jordan Olowofela
10. George Ford (captain)
9. Ben Youngs

1. Greg Bateman
2. Jake Kerr
3. Dan Cole
4. Mike Fitzgerald
5. Graham Kitchener
6. Mike Williams
7. Brendon O’Connor
8. Sione Kalamafoni.

Replacements:

16. Ross McMillan
17. Facundo Gigena
18. Joe Heyes
19. Harry Wells
20. Will Evans
21. Ben White
22. Joe Ford
23. Sam Aspland-Robinson.

Ulster:

15. Louis Ludik
14. Robert Baloucoune
13. Will Addison
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Billy Burns
9. Dave Shanahan

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Marty Moore
4. Iain Henderson
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Andy Warwick
18. Ross Kane
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Nick Timoney
21. John Cooney
22. Michael Lowry
23. Darren Cave.

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (France).

Ahead of the final weekend of European pool games, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look at what each of the provinces can expect, and who impressed last weekend:


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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