McCloskey eyes Zebre win as Ulster push hard for vital Champions Cup spot
While all eyes may remain on the Six Nations for the next month or so, the battle for PRO14 play-off spots seems sure to be a race full of twists and turns with Ulster right in the middle.
The northern province beat Ospreys 8-0 on Friday to move into fourth in Conference B, the same spot they finished up in last season.
While that meant a high stakes play-off for a Champions Cup spot a year ago, Dan McFarland's men sit just two points behind both Edinburgh and Benetton in second and third with six games to go. With 2017 champions Scarlets still in the mix, Leinster far and away in first place, and both Dragons and Southern Kings battling to avoid the wooden spoon, a mini league has developed where the team with the lowest return will spend 2019/20 in the Challenge Cup.
As now seems traditional, Ulster have a tremendously tough slate to finish with trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow and the hosting of Leinster in the final three rounds.Before that though, the side have three eminently winnable contests, hosting Zebre and Southern Kings with a trip to Dragons in between.
"We wanted to bounce back from the disappointing draw with Treviso at home," said Stuart McCloskey after his try-scoring turn in Friday's win.
"What we worked on through the week came through in defence.
"I think we were the better team. We created a lot of opportunities, we didn't take them all, but that'll come.
"We'll come in this week and prepare for (Zebre). As we're seeing with Treviso, the Italian teams are improving but we'll be looking to get another win and push our way up that table."
Elsewhere, Scarlets loss to Benetton sees them up against it with their departing head coach Wayne Pivac upset by the officiating in the 25-19 reverse.
"We're very frustrated," said the man who will take over from Warren Gatland as Wales coach after the World Cup. "We made some errors but we need to go and review that game because there were things that happened out there that I wasn't very happy with personally.
"You have two of your frontline players off the field for 20 minutes (for HIAs), taken off by the matchday doctor who then clears them both, our doctor said they were fine. A few things went o that I'm not happy with.
"We made some errors, and we've to look at those first and foremost, but there were some errors out there by the match officials and we'll go through the normal channels."
Scarlets though can take heart from the fixture list of their rivals.
"This isn't done and dusted by a long stretch," Pivac added. "It's going to go down to the wire. We have to dust ourselves off."
Regardless of the circumstances, it was a huge win for Benetton. A surprise package, but one who has been building steadily under Kiwi Kieran Crowley, they sit third, behind Edinburgh only on points difference.
While they host Dragons this weekend and finish up with Zebre, the games in between see them welcome Edinburgh and Munster while facing trips to Leinster and Connacht.
Edinburgh though, have arguably the toughest run in of all. They play all three of their fellow Champions Cup chasers as well as Leinster, Glasgow and Cardiff.
As such Friday night's come-from-behind win at home to Dragons was of vital importance.
The struggling Welsh region have improved performances of late, and led in Murrayfield at half-time 17-14 only for the hosts to score 20 unanswered.
"We've got to keep chipping away and get as many points as we can," said Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill afterwards. "We've got some injuries and obviously Test duty calls but we've just got to keep battling away.
"We've got Scarlets to play, we've got Ulster to play, we've got a pretty tough run in- but our season's alive."