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Ulster v Ospreys: Stuart McCloskey eager to build on early promises of quality

Guinness Pro12 League: Friday 4 September, 7.35pm, Kingspan

By Michael Sadlier

Published 04/09/2015

Clear aims: Stuart McCloskey is striving to cement a place in Ulster’s starting line-up
Clear aims: Stuart McCloskey is striving to cement a place in Ulster’s starting line-up

First up, Stuart McCloskey feels the need to park some mental baggage. After all, last season offered so much both for the squad and for himself on a personal level, only for all the promise to go unfulfilled.

Indeed, for a while during the last campaign, the strong-running centre was being spoken of as a possible bolter for Ireland boss Joe Schmidt's plans, in both the long and short-term, such had been the impact of his performances.

And then, a bit like Ulster really, it all fell away through a combination of bad luck and lack of composure at key moments. There is some consolation, though, even if battling to be a regular first choice in Ulster's crowded midfield is a challenge in itself, as he starts tonight in the PRO12 opener with the Ospreys.

At just 23, McCloskey really should have ample time to come again, though he is only too aware of the rise of Sam Arnold. Right now, McCloskey just needs games and during the World Cup, with Darren Cave away, and Stuart Olding still injured, he should get his chance alongside another inside centre rival, Luke Marshall.

So, time to dispose of that baggage.

"Everybody's hopefully put that lost semi-final (at Glasgow when he joined the action from the bench) behind them and we should have done different things and we really should have won it," he said. "We'll have learnt our lesson and know what to do if we get back again.

"Hopefully I'll now get to show what I can do. I think I showed that last season and if I can kick on from what I was doing then and play well I might be able to nail down a place in the team (post-World Cup)."

Now is the time and he badly wants to get an early carry into the heart of the Ospreys' defence, just to get things going on the right note.

But there is still some of last season to be dissected. It started so promisingly only to stall at the back end of last year due to injury and then the four-week suspension following his red card for a dangerous tackle against Edinburgh last February.

"It was going well and then I hurt my elbow. I came back and quickly got banned," he said of a memory that is still rather raw.

"I thought I was playing well later in the season. I was pushing hard but I thought Darren (Cave) and Jared (Payne) were doing really well and they did a great job.

"I was happy to come on to make an impact."

At least there was something rather more positive from the summer with McCloskey again included in the Emerging Ireland squad which travelled to Georgia and went on to lift the Tbilisi Cup, to sit alongside the previous year's success in the equivalent tournament which was held in Romania.

"That was the second year in a row that we won the tournament, it was called the Nations Cup the year before in Romania," McCloskey recalled of his double success.

"It was great experience again and it was really good to win it and get a few games out there."

He will be playing outside fellow Tbilisi Cup winner Peter Nelson tonight - both also cut their teeth in the club game at Dungannon - with the latter in the unfamiliar position of wearing the No 10 shirt for Ulster. It will be quite an examination for both of them but McCloskey has his plan in place.

"I just have to play rugby," he added.

So, baggage binned, it's game on.

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