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I need to rip up trees to make Ireland side, admits Ulster star McCloskey

 

By Michael Sadlier

His game is so much more than just charging forward and now, with Ulster changing the way they are playing, we are now seeing just how much value Stuart McCloskey is adding to the overall package.

There was always a high level of skill and ability, but now the hard-running centre is flourishing during Dan McFarland's tenure, delivering deft off-loads while also doing even more in the tackle zone where his breakdown work is getting noticed.

He turned 26 over the summer, when he signed a new deal to keep him at Ulster until 2022, so McCloskey is now hitting his peak and bringing consistency, experience - he is due to make his 88th appearance for Ulster on Saturday in the Heineken Champions Cup opener at home to Leicester Tigers - and elements of leadership to the overall package.

And Ulster will need all these attributes and more when it comes to starting their European programme with a vital home clash against the Tigers.

Neatly enough, McCloskey made his European debut against Leicester, when Ulster lost their first pool game of the 2014-15 season at Welford Road, and he recalls being hauled off after less than an hour on the park.

Things have changed since then and he tends to stay on the field now which is hardly surprising with the impact McCloskey makes going forward and when knocking opponents down.

"I just want to off-load a bit more and play more freely," he said of how this season has been going. "Dan (McFarland) and Peely (Dwayne Peel) have given me the licence to do that, but yet still try to be quite secure with the ball as well and not throw too many away.

"If I can keep doing that and if it keeps getting us over the gain-line and on the front foot, then I'm happy to keep doing it."

The Tigers know that the two-time-capped Ireland international will require their extra attention when it comes to nullifying his combination of brute force and subtle ball skills.

And they will also have to be wary of McCloskey's work rate when on the back foot.

He can also tackle with notable ferocity and then get over the ball and win turnovers.

"I want to hopefully be a bit of a threat at the breakdown," he noted. "Especially in the wide channels when I'm probably a bit bigger than most of the backs out there and I can get in there and not get moved."

Even though Ulster have not been in great form of late - he didn't play in the record defeat to Munster - McCloskey is certainly performing well enough to feature again on Joe Schmidt's radar at some point in next month's four Tests, not that he reckons there is a huge chance to displace Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose or Rory Scannell from being at the forefront of the Ireland coach's thinking.

"The depth at centre is probably the best it's ever been," said McCloskey, who made his Ireland debut in the 2016 Six Nations clash with England.

"With the (Ireland) team doing so well with Robbie there and now Bundee, if I was coach I wouldn't see any real point in changing it unless I've ripped up trees and I don't think I've ripped up trees.

"I've played well, but I haven't been the best 12 in Europe, so there's no real point in changing a winning formula (with Ireland)," said the Bangor man who last played for Ireland last autumn against Fiji.

"I just want to play as well as I can here and put my best foot forward and there's not much more I can do."

Turning his attention to matters European again, he addresses the forthcoming 20th anniversary of Ulster winning the tournament in the only way a current player can.

"We shouldn't be hearing too much about it so long after it happened," said the player who, along with Craig Gilroy, is currently helping out with coaching the backline at his home club of Bangor. "It's the best thing we've done as a club. We should (now) try to write a bit more history and not just look back at the past.

"I love this competition. I grew up watching it and there is always a buzz on European weeks and to play Leicester, Racing and the Scarlets, they are all really massive games for us."

He is expecting a tight enough affair on Saturday against a Tigers side who, though they have won their last two Premiership games, have not been firing on all cylinders since Geordan Murphy unexpectedly took charge at the start of the season.

"After watching last week's game, I suspect they'll go after our set-piece," said McCloskey, who admits to now having a much more vocal role on the pitch. "But we'll be trying to do our own thing.

"We've got to just execute better and not let the game get into the referee's hands. Hopefully we get the win (on Saturday), stay in the competition and push on for the quarters."

They were in position to make the last eight up until last January's final group game and then, of course, blew it at Wasps.

McCloskey is determined to take things further this time.

• Ulster flanker Matthew Rea has been banned for four weeks following his red card in last Friday's PRO14 game against Connacht.

The Disciplinary Committee, sitting in Edinburgh yesterday with Rea appearing via video link, stated that the 25-year-old - who will miss four games - is free to play from November 5 and has the right to appeal.

Rea was sent off at the start of the second half by referee Andrew Brace under Law 9.17 -which states that a player must not tackle, charge, pull, push or grasp an opponent whose feet are off the ground - after committing an act of foul play against Cian Kelleher.

Ulster vs Leicester Tigers

Heineken Champions Cup

Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 5.30pm

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