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Older, wiser McCloskey ready to slot back into Ireland's midfield

The Ulster centre is in line for his first cap since November and feels his decision-making has come a long way since his debut.

McCloskey on the run against Fiji last year.
McCloskey on the run against Fiji last year.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND’S CENTRES HAVE been nothing if not flexible over the past year and Stuart McCloskey is hoping to be the latest midfielder to slot in and shine.

Since the Ulster powerhouse won his overdue second cap against Fiji a year ago, Joe Schmidt has relied on some combination of Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose while Ireland delivered a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia and a historic second win over New Zealand.

Will Addison has also added himself to the options after a commendable late promotion from reserve to starting 13 against Argentina.  

12 months on from running out in the win over Fiji, McCloskey hopes to emulate the example of his new provincial team-mate by seamlessly slotting back in without a trace of rust.

“It is obviously slightly difficult,” McCloskey said at Carton House yesterday, “it’s hard to get the combinations right. We’ve been training together for there or four weeks with the, sort of, ‘second-string team’ with Garry slotting in beside us.

A lot of guys can slot in anywhere in the squad. You have to be ready  to step up to the mark if you’re needed.”

After a brilliant 80-minute display against New Zealand, Ringrose most likely won’t be deployed from the start at the Aviva Stadium against the USA on Saturday (kick-off 18.30). Sam Arnold has also been training with the squad again while patiently waiting for his international debut, so he appears a viable option alongside McCloskey. While  Jordan Larmour’s enforced rest could shift Addison to the back three.

Stuart McCloskey McCloskey attempts a trademark offload in training. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The guys ahead of me are doing very well, it’s going to take a lot for me to push them out of the way. Hopefully, I’m there if someone gets injured,” says McCloskey. He is aware of his place in the pecking order behind all those involved in the Grand Slam. But he is determined to bring his excellent Ulster form to make a mark on the international stage.

“I think I’m a better player than I was two or three years ago and these camps have a lot to do with it. Everybody’s level raises here. You see how well the team is doing now and it shows.”

Wrapped up in that overall improvement is McCloskey’s offload game. His power through the tackle, long limbs and soft hands can make him a game-breaking talent when he connects with a pass out of contact. Against the USA, when there are new combinations across the park, such a skill could prove valuable in generating momentum.

“I think it’s knowing when to throw that offload and not to throw the silly ones maybe,” he says after we point out that Schmidt teams once looked extremely reticent to attempt offloads.

“That’s something I’ve taken into my game. Offloading is a big part of my game, I don’t throw as many silly ones now as I maybe did when I was younger.”

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Sean Farrell

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