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Ulster to turn up heat in Italy: Stuart McCloskey

 

By Jonathan Bradley

While he'd maybe have to whisper it around his new centre partner, Stuart McCloskey is starting to feel his age. With the 33-year-old Tommy Bowe rolling back the years since his switch to 13 during pre-season, the man who will again slot alongside him in Ulster's midfield against Treviso this evening (5.05pm kick-off) is ready for a defining season.

Having turned 25 over the summer, today's clash represents a 61st senior appearance of McCloskey's career and the powerful centre understands he is reaching a point where people will stop talking of potential and start expecting consistent results.

"I don't want to sound old or anything, but at this age you should know what's happening," said the Bangor man.

"I'm 25 now, I'm not the youngster I once was. I've played 60 games now and you sort of get used to it.

"It's not that you relax before games because there's always the anticipation, but when you're out there, just let it flow."

There are still aspects of his game he thinks need polishing, especially if he is to build on the solitary Irish cap he won against England in the 2016 Six Nations, but he believes the calmness that comes with experience brings with it an added confidence.

"When I'm playing well, like towards the end of last season I was playing well and putting in good performances (it comes from confidence)," he said.

"Hopefully with a good run of games now, it all comes a lot more naturally to me. When I'm playing well things just happen, sometimes you try to force things when you're not playing well and I think that happened towards the middle of last season.

"I'll take every game as it comes and hopefully build on last week.

"Obviously I'm still looking to be physical, that's something I've always brought, but I'm just trying to be more of a distributor and bring more of a kicking game.

"I thought I was pretty well rounded the other night (against Cheetahs), apart from dropping a ball I probably would've walked in for a try."

While that butter-fingered moment did produce a wry smile and a red face, McCloskey did get in for one score, as did Bowe.

While Ulster are usually thought of as well stocked for centre options, the transformation of Bowe into a midfielder is something McCloskey feels we could see plenty more of.

"I didn't think Tommy still had that pace in him after all these years and all those injuries," he laughed of the Monaghan man's sprint for the line that produced the province's first try of the season.

"He was flying down there, and John Cooney opened it up for me nicely for mine so it was just a stroll after that. Both of us got a try, both defensively good, you couldn't ask for much more.

"Tommy hasn't played centre for a while and it was the first game coming back in for the new season for myself so both of us were a bit nervous before, but off set piece our defence was very good.

"Obviously there's areas to improve on but generally I don't think they did too much through the middle so it went well."

Beyond the man outside him, another difference for McCloskey this season is the larger presence in front of him.

After the departure of Nick Williams, and the injury to Marcell Coetzee, all too often last season it felt like the 110kg centre was Ulster's only method of crossing the gainline.

But with Coetzee fit again, and Jean Deysel having arrived from Munster, it certainly felt like an easier ride against the Cheetahs.

"It was brilliant, I felt great on Saturday morning," he joked.

"I thought those two, Marcell and Jean, were brilliant the other night, but I thought the whole pack did well. It was just those two got the big carries you saw on TV. It's great, it gets us that go forward and hopefully that gets me a few more soft shoulders in the back-line to go at."

There will be no Coetzee in the Stadio di Monigo today, the Springbok being eased back after only making four appearances in 16 months, but McCloskey is demanding that nothing is allowed to slip against the Italian underdogs.

Roundly beaten 34-3 by Munster a week ago, Kieran Crowley's men come into the contest with a lengthy injury list, but it is important that Ulster continue to build on the marker laid down by last week's convincing win.

"We can't leave it at that one win," McCloskey stressed. "We have to build wins and I think we have a few fixtures coming up that we'd like to think we can win.

"They're a good team at home, and we usually have tight games there. Even last week against Munster they started badly, but the second half was only 7-0 to Munster so they've obviously shown up something there. They're not going to roll over for us, especially at home, so we have to bring our best game."

Something McCloskey knows is now to be expected of him week in, week out.

Bradley’s Verdict: Ulster

The fixture computer has been kind to Ulster and this is a real chance to gain a head-start on their play-off rivals. After last week’s bonus point, Les Kiss will be expecting to repeat the trick in a venue where they have never lost. The return of Jacob Stockdale and Kieran Treadwell should help them ease to victory this time.

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