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Six Nations: Tough Stuart McCloskey able to cope with powerful Welsh backline

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 04/02/2016

In the frame: Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey could make his Ireland debut as they begin their Six Nations title defence against Wales
In the frame: Ulster ace Stuart McCloskey could make his Ireland debut as they begin their Six Nations title defence against Wales

Should Stuart McCloskey make his Ireland debut against Wales on Sunday at the Aviva Stadium (3pm kick-off), forwards coach Simon Easterby has no doubts that the Ulster centre is ready for the physical battle.

The Bangor native is one of four uncapped players in Ireland's Six Nations squad - the others being CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane - with the battle for midfield places one of the more intriguing aspects of the build-up to the opening of the Irish title defence.

Since November 2014, Joe Schmidt has opted for Robbie Henshaw inside McCloskey's Ulster team-mate Jared Payne but it is a midfield the head coach himself described in the past as "manufactured".

If McCloskey were to break up the duo - with the added possibility of Payne being utilised as a full-back - Easterby is sure that the 118kg, 23-year-old could handle the rough and tumble of a contest against Wales' powerful backline.

"He's played against some pretty physical teams this year," said Easterby. "Toulouse up in the Kingspan weren't a small team; they're a big set and he did really well.

"He's gone well in the physicality stakes against Saracens. He's a big man and so are Wales. They've got threats across their back-line the same sort of size as Stuart and he's well able to step up and that wouldn't be an issue for him if he were to be selected."

And should the untested McCloskey be considered the best option, Easterby adds that Ireland will have no hesitation to throw him in at the deep end.

"We're not as experienced as them in terms of their match day 23. I think they've got over 900 caps between them," he noted. "We wouldn't be as strong as that but that shouldn't be an issue.

"We've got enough experience that allows us to pick players with a couple of caps, if they have haven't been capped before, and they can come in with experienced guys who can support them.

"Someone's got to win a first cap at some point. It might be this week, it might be next week but I'm sure we'll see guys over the next few weeks get opportunities.

"We've got to have a balance and try to have some continuity from the World Cup, but also if guys are playing well and we feel like they're going to add value and be better than the person that was there before, then we'll pick those guys.

"We want to be coming out of selection meetings feeling like we've had a hard choice to make because players have been making it competitive."

Sean O'Brien sat out training with a tight hamstring yesterday but Easterby expects the Tullow Tank to be fit to do battle with the likes of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric come the weekend.

"He had a tight hamstring," the coach, who has taken on greater defensive responsibility in the absence of Les Kiss, said.

"There's nothing unusual there, it's something that he might have had in the past and other players have these things. You've just got to manage him.

"He's got a down day (Thursday) and he doesn't have to train again until Friday, so we're comfortable with the amount of work he's got in during the early part of this week and last week to feel that we could manage it."

On the general health of the squad, and yesterday's appearance at Carton House from young Leinster centre Garry Ringrose, he added: "We've got Friday and Saturday, because we've got a longer week this week.

"We're in a good place, we feel comfortable. We haven't replaced Luke Fitzgerald yet, so Garry came in to cover for him because Leinster have no game this week."

Belfast Telegraph

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