Belfast Telegraph

Ulster's Stuart McCloskey on mission to seize his big PRO12 chance

By Michael Sadlier

It was fitting that Stuart McCloskey visibly contributed in the last move of the game against Munster with a trademark strong carry before, shortly afterwards, Paddy Jackson's skip pass put Paul Marshall in at the corner.

Even though the really hard work then came with Jackson's conversion to share the spoils, McCloskey could feel reasonably satisfied at having made a valuable contribution after being sprung from the bench for Darren Cave just five minutes before the hour mark.

Now the strong-running 22-year-old inside centre is in line to be a starter in Glasgow tomorrow for the last regulation game of the season as Ulster coach Neil Doak ponders some rotational and injury-enforced changes ahead of next week's PRO12 semi-final.

Where that semi will be depends on how things go at Scotstoun, and elsewhere, but for McCloskey a potential start is an opportunity he badly wants to take having spent time sidelined with an elbow injury picked up in December and then by a four-week ban he served for a red card given over a dangerous tackle in February's narrow win at Edinburgh.

"I just came on and made a bit of an impact to show Neil (Doak) what I can do and try and get back into the starting team," is how he sums up his 25 minutes on the park last Saturday in that dramatic encounter with Munster.

"I know we should have won," McCloskey maintains of the game with the victory a clearly preferred outcome with the plan being to stay in control of their chances to make a top two finish and home semi.

"We gave ourselves opportunities but we just didn't finish. If we can create as many opportunities on Saturday as we did last weekend, and take some of them, we can win."

And Glasgow's home record in the PRO12 - no defeat since November 2013 - does not in any way faze McCloskey, who senses there is an element of doubt in the air that Ulster can be the ones to buck the trend.

"We're going over there to win," says the player whose upward trajectory saw him feature for Emerging Ireland last summer.

"We just have to go, try to get the win, and hope the Dragons or Connacht do us a favour."

And talking of the play-offs which loom next weekend and could see Ulster face any one of the Ospreys, Glasgow and Munster at any venue, including back in Belfast if the stars align, McCloskey mentions that: "I heard a stat the other day that no PRO12 team has ever won an away semi-final.

"But I think we can go anywhere and win. Anybody can beat anybody on the day and especially as it's a semi-final," adds the man who won Young Player of the Year at the recent Ulster Rugby awards to back up last year's Academy Player of the Year crown in what was his breakthrough season.

Of course, having Iain Henderson available for selection after his red card against Munster was overturned has also brought a notable boost to the squad's confidence for what is to come in what they hope will be three more games taking them to the Kingspan final. And, indeed, McCloskey knows only too well what it feels like to have to serve out a sentence for being sent off.

"It's hard seeing everyone go out there while knowing that you could be playing, and think you should be playing, and seeing everyone around you enjoying it and winning games," he admits.

"You can't do anything to help and in some cases it's also to do with games that have been lost which you feel you could probably have helped win."

Even though there is a game to be played, and hopefully won, at Glasgow, the conversation still drifts back to next week and the looming semi-final with so much resting on the outcome.

McCloskey knows he has a chance to impress at Scotstoun and he doesn't want to miss his opportunity.

"I'll hopefully have a good game and put the coach under pressure and give him something to think about to maybe put me in there," he said.

"To play in the semi-final would be great no matter who it's against or where it is. Of course it's a massive carrot (the Kingspan final) and, if we can come back here, I don't see anyone beating us.

"But it's all about getting there first and what we need to do, and we'll know all about that over the next two games."

He sounds ready to make his mark.

The state of play

However things pan out on Saturday afternoon   it’s going to be quite a finish to the PRO12 regulation season as any one of the four teams in the play-offs could finish in the top two to earn the right to host their semi-final.

Just one point separates the four at the top of the table — Ospreys, Glasgow, Munster and Ulster in that order — with Neil Doak’s squad the only ones on 69 points.

A home semi-final which is highly desirable as no side who has had to travel has triumphed since the play-offs were introduced five years ago.

Ulster, though, have lost control of their own destiny and not only do they require a win at Glasgow for a top two finish, but they also need either the Ospreys to lose at Connacht or Munster to trip up when hosting the Dragons.

If more than two sides finish on level points, then the placings will be determined on number of wins. If that doesn’t separate them it goes to points difference. Total tries scored only comes into play if teams can still not be separated.

Belfast Telegraph

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