Stephen Ferris: Stuart McCloskey can stand heat in Ireland's Six Nations big battles
Former Ulster, Ireland and Lions star Stephen Ferris thinks the Six Nations encounter with Italy next month could be the ideal time to give Stuart McCloskey his first Ireland cap.
One of three uncapped players currently in Joe Schmidt's squad, the Bangor native's impressive form for Ulster has led to calls for his inclusion in the Test side but Ferris would not break up the successful partnership of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw for the must-win visit to France on Saturday
"I wasn't surprised to see Stuart not included against Wales last weekend," Ferris said.
"When Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are fit, the way they've performed, I didn't think Stuart would get in there.
"He's a 12 and 12 only, it's not like you can put him at full-back and Robbie Henshaw's defence is maybe a little bit better than Stuart's at the minute.
"By all accounts, he's doing all the right things in training and he's knocking on the door.
"You have to keep battering away and just putting in the performances for Ulster.
"When you talk to Stuart, that's all he's focusing on."
After last weekend's draw with Wales left Ireland needing a win at the Stade de France this weekend, Ferris thinks the visit from perennial underdogs Italy on March 12 would be the ideal occasion to blood the Ulster Academy graduate.
"The rugby that he's played this year, it deserves a cap," said Ferris. "There'll be bumps and bruises and I'd say he'll get a shout at some stage.
"If it's against Italy at home, so be it.
"Hopefully there won't be that pressure on that game, everyone will expect Ireland to win, so throw him in there.
"Whether he can make that big impact off the bench, or whether Joe would give him the start, will be interesting to see."
The 16-16 stalemate against Warren Gatland's men has dented Irish hopes of a historic third title in a row, with Ferris believing that a lengthy injury list has undermined the campaign.
Iain Henderson, Tommy Bowe and Peter O'Mahony will all miss the entire championship with Mike Ross and Cian Healy only returning to Leinster training this week.
"I think after the draw at the weekend, it makes things a lot more difficult," reflected the 2009 British and Irish Lion who retired in 2014 with a persistent ankle injury.
"If we had got off to a winning start, it could all go from there but we couldn't do that.
"We're not out of it by any means. We've got a point on the board so it's all about going over and trying to beat this French team.
"Of course we can do it but do we have the squad to win the championship? I think we're a little light with all the injuries.
"If we're unlucky and pick up a few more in key positions, then it's even more difficult.
"Hopefully we can get as strong a team out on Saturday and then you never know but for me, it's a tough ask."
Ireland fully expect to have Sean O'Brien available to face a side they have not lost to since 2011 this weekend after the Leinster flanker shrugged off a hamstring complaint while the man-of-the-match display from CJ Stander against Wales has further boosted the back-row options available to Schmidt.
The native South African, who qualified for Ireland on residency in October, was highly effective in the number six jersey last weekend and caught the eye of one of his Munster and Ireland predecessors, Alan Quinlan.
"I was very impressed," said the blindside capped 27-times between 1999 and 2008.
"For any player to go out and put in a performance like that in an intense environment with Ireland under pressure, is a remarkable thing.
"I was confident that he had the ability to step up because there is a difference. There's no doubt about that.
"Playing at that pace is the main thing but the guy has improved so much in the last 12-18 months.
"If you have such consistency, the pace is the only thing that's different.
"He can still work on parts of his game, maybe his offloading and distribution, but the sheer power to get over the gainline is really something.
"The pressure, experiencing something for the first time, he didn't let it get to him."
Stephen Ferris and Alan Quinlan were speaking in the Belfast Telegraph building on behalf of the Ulster Bank-hosted RBS 6 Nations trophy tour.