Ulster's Stuart McCloskey awaits Ireland's call for Six Nations
Ulster's losing trip to Saracens' Allianz Park provided Stuart McCloskey with the toughest test of his young career to date but the inside centre hopes bigger challenges lie ahead in the coming months.
Ireland's Six Nations panel is expected to be announced tomorrow and, outside of the newly-qualified Munster back-rower CJ Stander, McCloskey seems the most likely uncapped player to force his way into Joe Schmidt's first squad since the dispiriting World Cup quarter-final loss to Argentina back in October.
The 23-year-old was part of the extended gathering that assembled at Carton House between the festive inter-pros and final rounds of the Champions Cup earlier this month, the first taste he's had of a full senior camp having previously been involved in the build-up to an uncapped game against Barbarians last May.
His recent midfield partner Luke Marshall was also called upon, although didn't train due to a slight knock, and Schmidt has plenty of centre options.
Jared Payne, a starter when fit ever since he qualified through residency in November 2014, returned to action on Saturday having broken his foot during the World Cup.
His Six Nations partner last year Robbie Henshaw - the pair weren't fit together during the World Cup - is also nearing a comeback after a hand injury.
In the past, Schmidt has described that midfield as "manufactured" with McCloskey offering one possible alternative while Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald both filled in during the World Cup.
Darren Cave, who will return for Ulster this weekend having missed just over a month with a shoulder complaint, is another who saw time in the No.12 jersey during the tournament.
With the plethora of players at Schmidt's disposal, McCloskey is reluctant to look too far ahead.
"I think I've been playing well," he reflected. "All I can do is play well at Ulster. I figure I'm performing well here so hopefully I've put my hand up for selection."
His provincial Director of Rugby Les Kiss, more than familiar with Schmidt's way of working after almost two and a half years together in the Ireland set-up, has been pleased with the development of a player he has started in nine of his 10 games in charge.
"Stuart was called into the camp a few weeks ago so he's in their sights," said Schmidt's former defensive specialist. "It's not for me to say whether he'll get there or not but he's playing very well. He's developing all elements of his game and if he's selected it'll be deserved."
With the national side's forwards coach Simon Easterby and Kiss' successor Andy Farrell watching on in north London over the weekend, McCloskey again impressed despite the loss.
While Saracens' excess quality came to the fore in the second-half, it was a searing break from McCloskey that set up Ulster for their first try of the game and a lead they held until the 36th minute.
With Mark McCall's men having taken 10 points from the province in this season's Champions Cup, McCloskey has found the Premiership champions an opponent of unparalleled quality.
"They're probably the best team I've ever played against," he said. "They just do the basics so well. They've a lot of good ball carriers and a lot of internationals there. They're hard to stop sometimes.
"I think we probably should have went in ahead (at half-time) but we should have reacted better in the second-half and come out a bit stronger.
"We knew it was always going to be tough, obviously Saracens are a great team.
"We didn't make it easy for ourselves. We had chances.
"We were in their left corner a couple of times with line-outs.
"From then, there was a point in the second-half when we gave up three penalties in a row. It was a difficult afternoon."
The defeat leaves Ulster heading into Saturday's contest with Oyonnax needing help from elsewhere to progress to a European quarter-final.
The province enter the final round of pool action ranked fifth out of five second-placed teams, with only the best three progressing.
As they chase a high-scoring win, the return of Cave is likely to be offset by the loss of Wiehahn Herbst to a foot injury and the continued absence of Chris Henry with a shoulder issue.
Sean O’Brien has confirmed his interest in taking over as Ireland’s captain.
The Leinster flanker, who faces competition from Ulster’s Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip, said: “There is no discussion back and forth. When you go into camp, it will be announced and we will just run with it.”