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Doak's men out to put previous struggles behind them

By Michael Sadlier

Before we all buy into the notion that it is only Ulster's contemporary fortunes that should have us sitting uneasily over tomorrow's gathering at Stadio Monigo (kick-off 2.00 UK time and live on BBC NI) there is the little matter of their previous three PRO12 visits.

And though the intention is not to cause undue alarm about the must-win game, Ulster have found it tricky enough to secure victories over in Treviso when it comes to PRO12 encounters with the Italians, never mind the still raw hurt from their shock defeat to Zebre back in September.

Last February, Ulster only escaped from Treviso to the tune of 14-12 while on their previous visit in November 2012 they scraped through by a mere 16-15.

Eight months earlier it was also a tight squeak in the league when Ulster secured it with just four points to spare (27-23), so there does - European visits, or most of them anyway, aside - seem to be a certain pattern to these games over in northern Italy.

It's true that meeting them in and around international tournaments hasn't exactly helped but, if anything, that should be more problematic for the Italians.

Tomorrow, though, all this baggage must be thrown aside as an Ulster side will be running out in Treviso with a win the only acceptable outcome.

Ulster's rather miserable record when leaving the Kingspan Stadium behind them - one win, one draw and six defeats from eight games in all competitions - will just have to be halted against a side one place off the bottom of the table.

If Neil Doak is feeling the pressure from his side's struggles with form and injuries, then tomorrow really ought to relieve some of that strain.

Even though Franco van der Merwe is missing due to illness, skipper Rory Best, Dan Tuohy, Wiehahn Herbst and Robbie Diack are all still on board while Tommy Bowe has shaken off the dead leg picked up against Leinster.

Ulster go to Italy with a pretty settled side as the only changes are the return of Louis Ludik and the inclusion of second row Alan O'Connor from last weekend's disappointing but not unexpected defeat against Leinster at the RDS.

And with Jared Payne on the replacements bench, and poised for his first game-time since winning his first Ireland cap against South Africa back in November, Doak will have some extra attacking flair to deploy when required.

It will be interesting to see whether it is Paddy Jackson or Ruan Pienaar taking the all-important pots at goal.

Yes, it could be close again but, unless something goes spectacularly wrong, Ulster should get what they need to allow them to breathe that bit more easily.

Stuart McCloskey has signed his first senior contract with Ulster Rugby.

The two-year deal means that the ex Bangor Grammar School pupil will be at Kingspan Stadium until at least the summer of 2017.

A product of the Hughes Insurance Ulster Academy, McCloskey made his debut against Newport Gwent Dragons last February.

He has made 12 appearances for Ulster so far and was man-of-the-match against Edinburgh earlier this season.

"Every young player wants to play for the first team and wants to sign a professional contract and I feel very fortunate now to have done both of those things with the province that I am from and that I support," said McCloskey.

"We have a fantastic group of players, great facilities and excellent coaches so signing the contract was not a difficult decision.

"As at every top rugby side, competition for starting places is high, but I am aiming to play as much rugby as possible over the next two seasons and to help Ulster be successful."

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