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Ulster can fight back from Euro brink, says McCloskey

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 14/01/2017

Going over: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is sure of victory in Exeter
Going over: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is sure of victory in Exeter

While it may have left them on the outside looking in last time around, Stuart McCloskey still thinks 18 is the magic number when it comes to a spot in this season's Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Since the old Heineken Cup format was dumped for a more streamlined version in 2014-15, the Kingspan outfit are the only side to hit as many as 18 points and not make the quarter-finals as one of three pool runners-up, coming last season when failure to pick up a try-bonus away to now second-tier Oyonnax eventually cost them dear.

Even with Clermont Auvergne very much in charge of their pool, McCloskey believes his side may be luckier this time around and, as such, is targeting nine more points, starting with a win away to Exeter in tomorrow evening's do or die clash (5.30pm kick-off).

"Obviously we need to win this time, scrape four points and then get back here next week and pick up a bonus point against Bordeaux in the last game," said the bulldozing centre.

"That would be 18 points and then who knows what can happen."

And while no matter what happens in Sandy Park tomorrow, or indeed back in Belfast against Bordeaux a week later, Ulster will be reliant on other results going their way, McCloskey's only concern is that he and his team-mates take care of their own business.

That means taking more of the opportunities they create, a familiar refrain from coaches throughout this season.

It was a similar story against Scarlets last time out in the PRO12, where the game finished with Ulster massively ahead all over the stat sheet but earning only a losing bonus point for their efforts.

"We just have to be more clinical when we are up there, and when we are on their line make the most of it," said the Bangor man.

"I think last week it was just individual errors but some of our calls were affected by the heavens opening for the whole 80 minutes.

"It was pretty greasy and guys were dropping balls that they normally wouldn't and we couldn't really get that momentum around the corner because guys were struggling to catch the ball.

"It was the same with them as well. They struggled to get anything going and the only time they got in our '22' they scored from that maul. It was tough but they took that maul try clinically and that's where we should have done better."

On such fine margins are seasons often altered with Ulster aware how much rosier their prospects in Europe would be if they had even managed losing bonus points on their previous European away trips.

If the emphatic home win over Clermont isn't to be rendered a pleasant memory in an otherwise forgettable campaign, a win over the Chiefs is imperative.

Simply put, Ulster know that a defeat leaves next week's home tie a dead rubber and McCloskey is aware of the threat posed by the Devon outfit, even if the hopes of Rob Baxter's men in Europe are all but over.

"They're in really good form now and it will be tough, but play our best and I can't see any reason why we can't win," he said. "For us, coming off a couple of losses recently, you just get everybody to sit down, not to regroup, but to say that we are all on the same page again.

"We know we are close, we're not that far away.

"We lost by three points last week and the Scarlets aren't a bad team at all. The last two loses we had before that were Clermont and Leinster.

"Again, they aren't exactly bad teams, so the games we have lost recently haven't been against bad teams we just haven't been there for say a period of 20 minutes during the game and that's when it has got away from us."

And while Ulster's form has been patchy, McCloskey's own performances have been considerably more consistent.

Will he, almost one year on from his solitary Test cap against England, be trying to catch the eye of Joe Schmidt one last time before the Six Nations?

"I don't see why I couldn't play for Ireland but it's Robbie Henshaw's shirt at the minute," he added. "He's playing well and will probably have to do something wrong for me to get in."

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