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McCloskey relishes chance to shine on big stage

By Michael Sadlier

It's a strange week really, what with Ulster going into a game they don't actually have to win and when the scenario is put to him for an opinion, Stuart McCloskey smiles but doesn't flinch.

None of the accompanying baggage for this last game in Ulster's regulation PRO12 season, ahead of their already booked away semi-final, is much bother to the 21-year-old currently forging himself a growing reputation.

Indeed, Saturday will see McCloskey run out at Thomond Park seven days after he lifted the Hughes Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy Player of the Season.

Mark Anscombe's selection for tonight's inter-provincial joust with Munster, in Limerick, shows the focus has already shifted to next weekend's all-important PRO12 semi-final with their opponent then looking likely to be either Leinster or Glasgow with Munster having only an outside chance of making a top two finish.

So, with that in mind McCloskey and co could be on a hiding to nothing at Munster's Limerick citadel?

McCloskey, though, refuses to see what will be only his fourth appearance, and second start, quite the same way. In fact call it the exuberance of youth, or his creditable determination to continue making an impact, but he actually can't wait to play at a reasonably populated Thomond Park rather than the empty ground he turned out at while on Dungannon duty in the AIL.

"Everyone who's involved this week, well, we're all going out there to win," McCloskey maintains, handing off any notion that Ulster's shadow side in all but name will in any way dilute the intended performance.

"And everyone is going out there to try and keep their place. We know that's not going to be the case for everyone but you still want to put in a very good performance so that you'd like to think you're in with a shout to keep your place for the semi-final," says the player who will take temporary ownership of Luke Marshall's regular starting spot tonight.

"I wouldn't say there's no pressure but it's definitely not the same as having to go down there to get a win," McCloskey admits before adding, "but you still want to put down a marker for next season as well as for the semi-final.

"It's just exciting to potentially be playing against some of the Munster guys as I've only really ever seen them on TV really."

Some strong performances for the Ulster Ravens have helped propel McCloskey into the place he now occupies, biting at the heels of the established players, after only one year in the Academy, while still respecting that he still has much to learn.

"The main thing is that I think I can cut it at this level," he says. "I felt totally comfortable out there and I don't really feel so much in awe of the players in the way I would have a couple of years ago.

McCloskey goes on: "Now I feel I can slot in at that level and I feel that they can put me in there. And that's the main thing."

He's still got quite an examination to get through tonight.

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