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Jonathan Bradley: If not now for Stuart McCloskey's Ireland dream, then when?

Not included: Stuart McCloskey has been overlooked for
Ireland duty yet again
Not included: Stuart McCloskey has been overlooked for Ireland duty yet again
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The day that Joe Schmidt named his widest of wider panels to prepare for last year's World Cup, the size of the group first assembled to prepare for Japan in the first instance meant that the hard done by were thin on the ground.

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One name missing from the Kiwi's long-list, however, was that of Stuart McCloskey.

The Ulster centre managed to lose his wallet the same day... sometimes you get the sense that things just aren't going your way.

Schmidt had given McCloskey his debut in Twickenham during the 2016 Six Nations - the same day that Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane won their first caps - and a number of those present noted that the coach's post-match reflections on what was viewed as a commendable enough first performance were hardly what would pass for effusive.

Despite being a key cog in the Ulster machine, only two caps have followed, with the national side's cupboard well stocked with centres. The presence of Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and latterly Chris Farrell, coupled with Schmidt's seeming reticence to back him, made that omission from the notional 44 best players in Ireland back in May something to be expected. Since then, though, two things have changed.

Firstly, Andy Farrell was promoted from defence coach to be Schmidt's successor following the World Cup exit at the hands of New Zealand.

Secondly, and more importantly, McCloskey has been playing the best rugby of his professional career.

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Largely due to his body-type being something of an endangered species in this part of the world - McCloskey tips the scales at a few kilos heavier than two-thirds of Ulster's usual starting back-row - the man nicknamed the 'Bangor Bulldozer' is often criticised for being one-dimensional, yet it's an increasingly dated opinion.

Still possessing the same physicality that made such an impression when he debuted for the province almost six years ago under Neil Doak, in recent weeks he has varied his output like never before.

While his grubber for a Matt Faddes score against the Scarlets back in November was the source of some mirth among his team-mates, his more conventional chip through for Luke Marshall to do likewise against Harlequins was the type of skill detractors would tell you wasn't in his locker.

So too the wide pass in the build-up to Robert Baloucoune's try against Munster two weekends ago at Kingspan Stadium.

Those moments have been the highlights of a fine run of form when, having put early season injuries behind him, more often than not he's been among the most dominant figures on the park.

While essentially an out-and-out inside centre, the lack of another string to his positional bow may work against him, but his inclusion in last month's 'stock-take' would surely have raised his hopes that a combo of form and a new coach had him primed for a Test breakthrough at 27-years-old.

"It was good to get in," he said recently of the December inclusion. "It was a breath of fresh air, but I just want to play well here and see where it takes me."

On the evidence of yesterday's Six Nations squad, not where he wants to go just yet. One question remains though - if not now, when?

Belfast Telegraph


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