Debutant Stuart McCloskey is not a one-trick pony
Ireland have no reservations about throwing Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey in at the deep end as he prepares to make his international debut against England tomorrow (4.50pm kick-off).
The 23-year-old Bangor native will make his Test bow in the intimidating surroundings of Twickenham as Joe Schmidt's side attempt to ignite a Six Nations campaign that has began with a draw against Wales and a loss to France to leave hopes of a third title in a row hanging by a thread.
With Leinster flanker Josh van der Flier also winning a first cap, and Connacht lock Ultan Dillane hoping to do the same from the bench, there is a freshness to the panel with Schmidt excited to see how they adapt.
"You've got to do it at some stage for the first time," he said at Carton House yesterday. "I'm always nervous and apprehensive even if we make no changes or even if we're well favoured.
"Whenever there's something new, it's a human reaction to be apprehensive but we all get excited too.
"I'm excited to see what gets delivered. It's probably a step they haven't been to before because you don't know until you've been there just how quick and physical it's going to be and it's a new challenge.
"They certainly don't lack enthusiasm and they've knitted in very well in training. That gives us confidence that they can slot in."
Schmidt had plenty of options to replace the injured Jared Payne in his midfield - Ulster's Luke Marshall is in fine form while Keith Earls started there during the World Cup - but the Kiwi praised the work ethic of the Ulster Academy graduate.
"Stu McCloskey has worked really hard through the season," said the former Leinster coach. "There are some impressive elements to his game and some things that he's worked hard on.
"I think it's a great opportunity for him to express himself and then he has a responsibility to make sure we're watertight.
"They're all big decisions but I think we've gone with form and balance. Keith could have moved into the midfield. Luke Marshall could have went in, he's been really good as well. It was tight between the three.
"One of the advantages was the way things fell, Stu spent last week training at 12 for us. That gives us continuity."
And the head coach is looking forward to seeing the raw power of McCloskey and Robbie Henshaw paired together.
"It's bizarre, isn't it?" he joked when asked about the size of the new partnership.
"It offers an opportunity to get forward momentum. It would be a danger to call Stuart McCloskey a one-trick pony. He's got the ability to pass in tight channels and pass across channels.
"He can bring more than just being used to carry forward as a blunt instrument."
McCloskey's Ulster team-mate Andrew Trimble has no doubts the Dungannon RFC man is ready.
"I think he steps up to whatever is in front of him," said the winger who wins his 61st cap against Eddie Jones' side tomorrow.
"I've been there all season with Ulster and had the opportunity to watch him step up to every challenge.
"I think it's been really impressive. He's a lot of confidence, the right amount of confidence but he takes his job pretty seriously as well.
"Lukey, Jackie and Stu (Marshall, Paddy Jackson and McCloskey), the three of them work well together.
"It could have been either of the other two getting an opportunity at the weekend.
"That combination has been so good for us going forward. The realisation of what's in front of them, Stu has been right at the centre and I'm looking forward to seeing him out there."
Like Schmidt, Trimble praised the work ethic of his young colleague and believes that, at almost 17st, the unique physicality he can bring will add a new dimension to Ireland's midfield.
"Joe talked about one or two areas he's working on, he's not the full package yet, but he's definitely getting there," reflected Trimble.
"He's working on his passing game, his offloading, his defence. He'll be under pressure in defence and defensively we've got a massive midfield. It's something that we need to be very excited about, that physicality getting us gain-lines."
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), S McCloskey (Ulster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), M Ross (Leinster), D Ryan (Munster), D Toner (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster), J van der Flier (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: R Strauss (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), N White (Connacht), U Dillane (Connacht), R Ruddock (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), I Madigan (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster).