How footballer Stuart McCloskey became a key player for Ulster Rugby
He came out of nowhere really. A force of nature, with talent to burn, Stuart McCloskey racked up straight out of school at Dungannon and was playing All-Ireland League rugby before he knew what had hit him.
Having attended Bangor Grammar without attracting any notice at underage provincial level and only becoming a sizeable physical specimen late in his school career — at one point McCloskey had been so lightweight that he was shunted into scrum-half — the now Queen’s student was encouraged to give senior club rugby a crack at one of Ulster’s then leading clubs.
And so began the centre’s rapid elevation from raw-boned but skilful schoolboy player, without any particular clear direction, to becoming a key member of Ulster’s squad with Ireland honours now strongly rumoured to be coming the 23-year-old’s way.
Not bad for a player who had not been particularly enthused about playing rugby in the first place but for the fact that it was played at his grammar school.
“I was actually more of a footballer really. I played at the St Andrews club on the Shankill and rugby only really started at my first year at Bangor Grammar, though I had played a year of mini rugby just prior to that,” said McCloskey.
It was golf that really hooked him and the teenage McCloskey spent his summers learning his craft at Clandeboye where his parents would drop him off in the morning and then collect him at the end of the day.
The time was well spent too as McCloskey managed to bring his handicap down to four and played in several provincial tournaments, but his size meant that rugby offered him an opportunity.
Jason Morgan, his coach at Bangor reckoned that he could go further. Kieran Campbell — then doing some coaching at the Dungannon club — heard about him and brought McCloskey down to Stevenson Park where he quickly made the starting team which also included a young Paddy Jackson.
It didn’t take long, though, for McCloskey to appear on Allen Clarke’s radar at Ulster and then things suddenly began to happen.
“I had just turned 20 and I had done quite well at Dungannon when Clarkey brought me to train at the sub-Academy,” he recalls.
“So I did six months in the sub-Academy, then a year in the Academy, a year on a Development contract and then I got a senior contract,” says McCloskey of his rapid rise which culminated in a full-time deal last January.
He made his senior Ulster debut the season before last and at over 6ft and around 17 stone, his power has at times looked irresistible while the skills-set, and his offloading repertoire have made McCloskey stand out even more.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing with him being dropped following his European debut in last season’s defeat at Leicester followed by an elbow injury and then a red card and ban for a tip tackle against Edinburgh. The latter two combined to badly interrupt his game-time at the tail-end of the campaign.
He has started this season like a runaway train and is determined to make his mark.
“I hope I’ve made that 12 shirt mine now, well, for the minute anyway,” he says of his Ulster midfield place which is one of the most intensely competitive areas in the squad.
“It’s just a case of playing well and if I do so I can’t see why I can’t play well at a higher level.”
The hype about an Ireland call has been growing for a while, though he has yet to be much more than an observer at Joe Schmidt’s get-togethers while he has featured for Emerging Ireland, in Romania and Georgia in the last two summers.
“It just seems like a natural progression for any young player to play for Ireland and I’d obviously be ecstatic to get into the Six Nations squad,” he says and with Robbie Henshaw injured there is a growing feeling this could be McCloskey’s time.
“It may still all seem to be happening quickly, but I’m 23 and it’s not unheard of to hear that a 23-year-old might have played for Ireland,” he adds.
He’s on Schmidt’s radar now, though, and looks ready to hit the next level.