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McCloskey a key man in all aspects as Ulster look for crucial away win

The English side have brought back most of their frontliners for the clash at Kingsholm.

McCloskey brings a threat in many areas.
McCloskey brings a threat in many areas.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IN THE EARLY days when Stuart McCloskey broke into the Ulster squad, such was the province’s need for back-rowers his size and physique had fans wondering if he was maybe being utilised in the wrong position.

His bruising ball carrying in the centre was highly effective – as it still is now – but with Darren Cave, Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall also there and a glaring need at blindside, there were legitimate arguments that he would be better utilised elsewhere.

And while the calls for him to switch to the pack have since evaporated, especially now that Ulster have brought through a bit more depth there, recent performances for the province have certainly suggested if he ever wanted to try and make a go of it on the flank, he’d make a good fist of it.

Against Toulouse last week he was credited with one turnover and was fairly prominent – along with Jacob Stockdale – in helping the Ulster maul over the line on a couple of occasions, something he wasn’t averse to getting involved with.

“I enjoy it. Me and Jacob, we knew if we got close to the line, if we could put some extra weight in… both of us would be heavy enough big lumps. The forwards always say the more weight the better, so it was good,” grins McCloskey.

It is something the Co Down man – affectionately nicknamed the Bangor Bulldozer – has been trying to add to his game. While his physicality in the carry is an obvious strength since he broke into the senior set-up, he’s been trying to add that to his breakdown work to give himself another string to his bow.

“My back was giving me issues a few years ago and I did really struggle bending over, but it’s not too bad now, so I try to get in and cause whatever hassle I can there,” explains the 28-year-old.

“It’s something we’ve tried to do (as a team). We’ve tried to be more physical. We spoke about it after the games after lockdown (in terms of) what the backs could do more of in those outside breakdowns. Just try to slow the ball down or get those turnovers.

“There was one from Mads (Ian Madigan) which was incredible. I don’t think you’ll see much better technique from the best back rowers in the world. Marcell would have been happy with that one.

stuart-mccloskey-dejected-at-the-final-whistle McCloskey starts against Gloucester today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Fair play as well for him going in there because there were two big enough forwards coming at him and absolutely smashed him after he got the ball. The backs are trying to do that a bit more.”

As for maybe still considering a switch to the flank?

“I actually have laughed about turning myself into a centre/back row option if it ever needed to be done later in my career, but I think I still have a few years left at 12 for now,” he grins.

Adding another dimension to his game has also surely been done with one eye on international matters. While McCloskey is one of the first names on the team-sheet at inside centre for Ulster and has found some favour with Andy Farrell after being named in the Ireland head coach’s first two squads in charge, his game time in a green jersey has been limited.

With the Six Nations already on the horizon, McCloskey knows that a few good showings for Ulster will at least get him back down to Carton House in February, but the ambition is to stake his claim for more game time than just the one cap against Georgia over the autumn.

But before that he has provincial matters to deal with, namely helping Ulster keep their European hopes alive with a win away at Gloucester this afternoon.

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“I think it would be a bit premature to say we’re completely written off now,” he argues after last week’s home defeat to Toulouse.

“Listen, normally you’d have a fair idea about getting about 18 or 19 points in the Champions Cup and it would be close, but this year who knows. We’ll be trying our best to get towards 15 points and see how it goes from there. If not, we’ll still be fighting to get into the Challenge Cup as well.

“Whatever happens we’ll be looking to win every game and progress as far as we can in whatever tournament we’re playing in.”

Gloucester:

15. Kyle Moyle
14. Charlie Sharples
13. Chris Harris
12. Mark Atkinson
11. Louis Rees-Zammit
10. Lloyd Evans
9. Charlie Chapman

1. Val Rapava-Ruskin
2. Jack Singleton
3. Ciaran Knight
4. Ed Slater
5. Matias Alemanno
6. Jordy Reid
7. Lewis Ludlow (captain)
8. Ruan Ackermann

Replacements:

16. Henry Walker
17. Alex Seville
18. Jamal Ford-Robinson
19. Alex Craig
20. Seb Nagle-Taylor
21. Toby Venner
22. George Barton
23. Henry Trinder

Ulster:

15. Michael Lowry
14. Matt Faddes
13. James Hume
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Billy Burns (captain)
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rob Herring
3. Marty Moore
4. Alan O’Connor
5. David O’Connor
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Nick Timoney

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Kyle McCall
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Matty Rea
20. Greg Jones
21. Alby Mathewson
22. Ian Madigan
23. Ethan McIlroy

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz [FFR].

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