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Dublin: 7°C Saturday 5 December 2020

McCloskey enjoying Payne game in defence as Ulster face up to champions Scarlets

Parc y Scarlets is not the ideal place to bounce back after a home loss to Edinburgh.

IT SPEAKS VOLUMES of a defence coach when one of his players openly admits he’s enjoying the side of the game without the ball.

In Ulster’s case, in the wake of Les Kiss’ departure, their defence coach isn’t officially their defence coach. But Jared Payne will have been proud of the performance Ulster put in to keep their home loss to Edinburgh to a mere one-point margin when the Scots dominated 70% of the territory and forcing 192 tackles

Jared Payne Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Led by Payne’s intrinsic rugby knowledge, and his familiarity with the Irish rush defence system, there’s most certainly cause for optimism, particularly for one centre in particular at Kingspan Stadium.

“I’ve been enjoying the defence recently,” Stuart McCloskey laughs. “Jared coming in and putting a few new things in place. We’ve got Lukey back at 13 and our midfield defence has been going pretty well. I enjoy defending, even if attacking is what you want to be doing.”

The Bangor man led the backs in tackles in the defeat to Edinburgh with 23 made and none missed, and when asked what Ireland centre Payne brings, he responded: “I think it’s new ideas. It’s hard to put your finger on it sometimes.

“He’s added a few new calls, having guys a bit more 100% in what they’re doing, whether it’s holding off and then sometimes giving easy yards around the edge, now it’s if you want to make the read, make the read but make sure it’s definitely the right thing to do.

A lot of what Jared is trying to bring is very similar to what Ireland are doing, but maybe it wasn’t stuff that everyone up here was doing or aware of. I think everyone has really bought into it, the three weeks that Jared has been doing it and hopefully that continues.”

Undoubtedly working with a fellow centre will have helped McCloskey, but the work must be redoubled today away to defending Guinness Pro14 champions the Scarlets (kick-off 19.35, S4C/BBC).

With Edinburgh now above Jono Gibbes’ side in Conference B, it’s now a race for that final play-off spot and, more crucially, a coveted spot in the Champions Cup for next season.

The fixture list is not kind for Ulster, however, with just two more games at home – one of which is against runaway Conference A leaders the Glasgow Warriors – and four on the road, with the Irish province’s away form patchy at best this year.

So the pressure is on, right?

“No,” is the blunt response from McCloskey. “I think all these games are going to be big games. If we’d beaten Edinburgh at the weekend, it would have taken a lot of pressure off our shoulders.

“We just have to go out these next few weeks and win these big games away and if there’s going to be a week to beat Scarlets, it’ll be this week with their internationals away and coming off the back of two defeats in a row.

‘Big performances’

“I don’t think we’ve looked too much further ahead than Scarlets this week and then Glasgow. They are obviously two big games for us and if we can get two big wins, we’re right back in it.

“I know Scarlets have us this week and then Leinster again, so effectively if we could win our next two games, we could flip the table and Scarlets might be in a bad position. The league changes very quickly these days and with six games to go, it’s still in our hands. We just have to put in some big performances.”

Big performances are now an absolute given if they don’t want to face dropping into the Challenge Cup for next season, something none of this current squad have faced in an Ulster jersey.

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Stuart McCloskey celebrates scoring a try Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

McCloskey, however, believes that’s a reflection on the strength of the league as a whole, even if he acknowledges that not having Champions Cup rugby would be an admission that this has been a poor season.

“I’ve never played at Ulster and not thought about being in the Champions Cup, but yeah realistically it’s something that could happen,” he admits.

“It speaks volumes of the league, I think there’s a lot more good teams in the league than maybe there was three or four years ago.

“When I started there was pretty much a guarantee you’d get top four, whereas now you have Edinburgh getting better, Treviso have won eight games and that’s never happened before.

“Zebre have also won four games and the only team that hasn’t performed this year is the Southern Kings. But every other team is capable of beating any team on any day which wasn’t the case three years ago.”

And as for the game at the Parc y Scarlets this evening, it’s a very tough test of where Ulster are right now.

“They’re a great attacking side with a lot of flair,” McCloskey admits. “They play a lot in the wide channels and they’ve the best ball-handling forwards in Europe at the minute. We’ve been working on a lot of things to counter-act that, but hopefully we get to attack a bit too.”

Source: The42 Podcasts/SoundCloud


15 Tom Williams
14 Corey Baldwin
13 Paul Asquith
12 Steff Hughes
11 Ioan Nicholas
10 Dan Jones
9 Jonathan Evans

1 Dylan Evans
2 Ryan Elias
3 Werner Kruger
4 Steven Cummins
5 David Bulbring
6. Tadhg Beirne
7 James Davies
8 Josh Macleod


16 Emyr Phillips
17 Phil Price
18 Simon Gardiner
19 Lewis Rawlins
20 Will Boyde
21 Declan Smith
22 Ioan Hughes
23 Ryan Conbeer


15. Louis Ludik
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Tommy Bowe
10. Johnny McPhillips
9. John Cooney

1. Andrew Warwick
2. John Andrew
3. Wiehahn Herbst
4. Alan O’Connor (captain)
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Matthew Rea
7. Nick Timoney
8. Jean Deysel


16. Rob Herring
17. Kyle McCall
18. Rodney Ah You
19. Matthew Dalton
20. Chris Henry
21. Paul Marshall
22. Peter Nelson
23. Darren Cave

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