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Ambitious Ulster must get off to a Euro flyer: McCloskey

Bath v Ulster, Champions Cup Pool Three: The Rec, Today, 1.00pm

Crunch: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Munster’s Rory Scannell and CJ Stander last Saturday
Crunch: Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey is tackled by Munster’s Rory Scannell and CJ Stander last Saturday
Stuart McCloskey at Kingspan this week
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

It perhaps isn't a great day to talk to Stuart McCloskey about fine margins.

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The Ulster centre, who has endured a disjointed start to the 2019/20 campaign thanks to a litany of knocks and niggles, was back in harness for last weekend's trip to Thomond Park to face Munster.

While the 22-16 reverse and accompanying losing bonus point provided the expected marked improvement from last season's harrowing record defeat it could have so easily been a much more memorable evening in Limerick. All but for a flick of Rory Scannell's wrist.

It was McCloskey who read a telegraphed pass from Munster's Tyler Bylendaal and plucked it from the air in the final moments, his eyes surely lighting up as he saw nothing but Thomond turf between himself and the posts.

Scannell, man of the match on the day, rescued the perilous situation for the hosts, tap-tackling McCloskey and ensuring the southern province's long winning run at home continued while Ulster were denied a first win at the ground since 2014.

 

"There's no harder place to go in Europe than Thomond apart from maybe the RDS," said McCloskey. "It's a fortress. We went away feeling we had the beating of them and that there'd been opportunities. If Scans hadn't got me at the end there I was under the posts and we would have won.

"We probably wouldn't have been the better team but we would have come away with a result."

In a long PRO14 season, such moments are numerous. Games are stolen and thrown away and come the end of May, it's the sides that show the greatest consistency that are left vying for the play-offs.

In Europe, though, the pendulum of momentum swinging one way or the other at the death can have profound effects on a Champions Cup campaign.

Today against Bath at The Rec (1pm kick-off), to emerge victorious or defeated from a game that hangs in the balance can be the difference between the quarter-finals or a long spring of watching the conclusion of the tournament from the armchair.

"The way Europe is going now with just 20 teams, every game is massive," McCloskey noted.

"I think you have to have a bit of fear to get that performance out of yourselves. Every team has the beating of the other on any day, and you have to bring your best. They'll know that us coming over, it's no walkover for them either.

"We've got those results (away from home) and we can have a bit of confidence from having done it before. We're not going over there expecting to win, we're expecting a good contest and hopefully the best team wins on the day."

That, of course, was arguably not the case when Ulster were last in European action, the quarter-final defeat to Leinster in the Aviva Stadium last March. On another day, one where Jacob Stockdale grounds the ball having gotten beyond the tryline or John Cooney strokes over a relatively straightforward penalty, the northern province's best performance of last season would have carried them into a first European semi-final since 2012.

To come so close after a long absence of knock-out rugby in this competition has certainly whetted the appetite, but McCloskey is aware that what is now required is consistency.

"That is what every side wants to do," he said of regular progression from the pool stages. "We have been sort of building towards that over the past couple of years I hope.

"The last two and a bit years we sort of got there and then we should have probably won that quarter-final.

"I think it is a case of turning those probabilities into actually winning these big games."

With European heavyweights Clermont - and their formidable home record - also in the pool, there's a natural assumption that Ulster's key games will come this afternoon and away to Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop next month. Just as wins at Scarlets and Leicester were the catalyst last season, and the loss to Wasps in Coventry a year prior scuppered their chances, Ulster's odds will have swung dramatically one way or the other come late afternoon.

"Yeah, I think most teams go in thinking if you win your games at home and grab something away you will be pretty close to the quarters," McCloskey said. "We will target every game to win it, but hopefully this week we can get (Bath) on the bounce. They have had a tough few games in the Premiership, we had a good hit out last weekend at Thomond and hopefully we can carry a bit of momentum into it and clear up a few mistakes.

"To get back to the quarters we have to win the games in the group stages first and we have done well in the last few years. We nearly got there the year before against Wasps and Harlequins when it came down to the last game so we know every point counts, whether it is getting five, four or one point over there, you need to go over and take your chances."

For the task at hand, Dan McFarland has opted for an interesting blend of returning heavy hitters and form selections.

Iain Henderson will lead the side out for the first time since succeeding Rory Best as captain as he makes his seasonal bow for the province following Ireland's World Cup campaign in Japan.

Marcell Coetzee is back too having been rested against Munster while Billy Burns and Will Addison are both back from injury to start at out-half and full-back respectively.

Elsewhere, though, in-form winger Rob Lyttle has been selected in the number 14 jersey, making just his third ever appearance in this competition while Louis Ludik is among the replacements with no Rob Baloucoune or Craig Gilroy in the matchday 23.

Mattie Rea has got the nod in the back-row with Sean Reidy left among the substitutes and Nick Timoney absent.

The remainder is as expected with Sam Carter alongside Henderson in the engine room and a front-row of Jack McGrath, Rob Herring and Marty Moore.

Jordi Murphy retains the seven jersey while again it's Luke Marshall alongside McCloskey in midfield. Stockdale joins Addison and Lyttle in the back-three while Cooney will look to continue his strong run of form at scrum-half.

For Bath, there are some returning World Cup stars in the shape of Jonathan Joseph, Ruaridh McConnochie and Sam Underhill.

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