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Bowe surprised by McCloskey's omission from Schmidt's World Cup training squad

The Ulster centre enjoyed an excellent season but was overlooked for Ireland’s extended summer panel.

IT’S A MEASURE of the depth of Ireland’s midfield resources that Stuart McCloskey, on the back of an exceptional season for Ulster, was one of the notable absentees from Joe Schmidt’s World Cup training squad last week.

The 26-year-old, who won the last of his three caps against USA in November, has every right to be deeply disappointed after being overlooked for the 44-man panel ahead of September’s tournament in Japan.

Stuart McCloskey dejected McCloskey had an excellent season for Ulster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

McCloskey had been outstanding for the northern province throughout the recently-concluded campaign, playing 26 games for Dan McFarland’s side, including all seven en route to the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals.

The Bangor native not only displayed a level of consistency in his fitness but in his performance at inside centre, making big contributions across the board — he made 239 carries in the Pro14, second only behind Edinburgh back row Viliame Mata, while he ranked highly in the defenders beaten, number of offloads and turnovers won categories.

In comparison with the five centres [Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Rory Scannell] included in Schmidt’s squad, McCloskey — who was named Ulster’s player of the year, supporters’ player of the year and in the Pro14 Dream Team — tops the offloads and turnovers won per match played metrics, while he is second behind Ringrose in the carries and clean breaks columns this term. 

But Schmidt, despite McCloskey’s performances, obviously remains unconvinced and has yet to see enough evidence that the six-foot-four centre has the all-round game to play Test match rugby on a regular basis, not least at a World Cup.

“I was surprised Stuart didn’t get the nod,” Tommy Bowe says. “I think he’s had an outstanding season this year.

“It is disappointing he hasn’t gotten the nod because he probably has warranted that position in the team, in the squad certainly. For a player to get player of the year for Ulster, has had an outstanding season, he offers something different, he does get the gainline, but he can offer a huge amount more in terms of offloading.

“Listen Joe has an idea of what he wants, he’ll tailor his squad around that, and unfortunately Stuart’s face hasn’t fit.”

For Ulster, McCloskey’s impact has been unquestionable and there is no doubt he has developed his game further this season, mixing his physicality in those midfield channels with an excellent skillset, as evidenced by that ability to offload out of the tackle. 

With Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki very much ahead of him in the pecking order for the number 12 jersey, opportunities since his Ireland debut against England at Twickenham in 2016 have been few and far between. Just two caps — against Fiji and USA — have followed. 

His defensive prowess and decision-making has certainly improved, and as Bowe explains, as has his attitude and work-ethic.

“Maybe when he first came down to Ireland camp, he came in and I’m not too sure, but maybe Joe didn’t think that he showed the enthusiasm he needed,” the former Ulster and Ireland winger continues.

“But I think that certainly in my last season, last year, he came in with a new attitude, he trained all through the summer, he came in with a real spring in his step. He was leading the charge in terms of all fitness, he picked up an injury through the season, but this season he’s seemed to kicked on another level.

“I’d say he’ll be disappointed [to be left out] but it’s early days, I’d say there’s still an opportunity for him to get back in among the squad at some stage.”

The fact McCloskey potentially offers something different to the other centres in Schmidt’s squad is what surprised Bowe most, particularly after the Six Nations. 

Whatever Joe has in mind, given how the Six Nations went, how Saracens played against Leinster in the European Cup, I’d imagine Joe definitely has a new idea of tinkering with the game plan we saw in the Six Nations.

“Given that England match… I know Joe from whenever he first came in, he wanted us to put the ball in the air, look at the back three — Jared Payne, playing at 13, who was a fullback, Rob Kearney, with the Gaelic football background, Simon Zebo, myself, all Gaelic football backgrounds. He saw that as an area of strength.

“He’s changed it to a possession-based game, it’s worked very well, but I’d be shocked if there’s not a new game plan that will evolve over the next couple of months.”

What do you think that will entail, given there are just four warm-up games between now and Ireland’s World Cup opener against Scotland in early September?

Bowe explains” “I’d imagine they’ll still bring out the best of the kicking game they had, but I would imagine the likes of attacking kicks is something we’ll see more of going into the next block of games.

Aviva Ireland light up Aviva Stadium to celebrate Pride Month Bowe was speaking at the launch of Aviva's Pride campaign yesterday. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

“When you have the likes of a 13 like Garry Ringrose, who can put the ball in behind. If teams are going to keep attacking with 13 or 14 men in the front line, there’s so much space.

“You saw it with Saracens, when you saw Alex Goode stepping into first receiver a lot, pulling the ball back to Owen Farrell — I thought that worked really well. If you can get a 10 into that outside to bring out the 15 then put the ball in behind, there’s a huge amount of space for teams to chase. Attacking kicks, I think we’ll see a lot more of, I was surprised we didn’t see a lot more of it at the end of the season, even cross-field kicks, it was a strength for Ireland in times gone by, but we haven’t seen much of it.”

Following the Six Nations, and the defeats to England and Wales in particular, Bowe admits the summer Tests against those two nations and Italy have taken on added significance as Schmidt not only finalises his 31-man panel but the players now bid to rediscover their form. 

“The Six Nations was that opportunity to finish on a high, that Welsh match was the perfect opportunity,” he says. “It went the opposite direction but the good thing about Joe Schmidt as a coach, the training sessions and the work that’s done on the training field can almost be picked up and put on a pitch.

“In terms of a confidence point of view, it’s game time. The guys maybe need to play, the people who are feeling under pressure. It’s one of the things about getting older, if you fall out of confidence. That’s always something I found as a bit of an issue. As a player, I always had to play myself back into form and you need a few games to find that. But unfortunately for some of the older players, it’s trying to find the games to get themselves back into that form again.

There is a huge amount of experience, they’ve had some outstanding days but it’s the young guys who maybe aren’t used to losing, who aren’t used to a big loss like Cardiff. It’s a shock to the system for those guys so it’s trying to build those guys back up so when they put that green jersey back on again, they’re back feeling where they did last November.

What Bowe is sure of is that Ireland will need to evolve their game-plan in the coming months to stand any chance in Japan, with the 35-year-old expecting his former coach to have something up his sleeve.  

“I don’t think it will be huge,” he says of the potential tinkering to Ireland’s approach. “The groundwork is set, in terms of going through phases. We showed we’ve got very good attacking kicks, in terms of the box-kicking game, which has gone past now but we still have it in the locker. Teams are expecting it now and England defended it very well. 

“I will imagine he’ll have something in his armoury. The Scottish match first up but hopefully if we get to the quarter-finals and it is a South Africa or New Zealand, we can’t expect to be going out to try and out-muscle them because they’ll be ready for that. And Joe knows that. Sure listen, he’s smarter than…I don’t know about you guys, but he’s a lot smarter than me. He’ll have something up his sleeve, no doubt about it.”

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Ryan Bailey

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