Stuart McCloskey ready to take on experienced role with Ulster
At the age of 25, Stuart McCloskey is by no means an old head in rugby terms. After all, he only made his debut for the province four years ago.
Yet this season he finds himself in the rather unfamiliar position of being one of the elder statesmen in the Ulster dressing room.
"Our changing room is done on caps, so Rory (Best) is at the top and I move around a lot, and I laughed because I'm moving up, I didn't think I was here that long!" McCloskey laughed.
"I think that's just a thing that comes with age, I'm 26 next month, and I'm getting on a bit, but I don't think I'm too old.
"But looking at the backs' session, I was the third oldest and that is strange!"
It's a symptom of having so many experienced heads depart the province at the end of last season, with a wealth of caps heading off into retirement.
Between them, Andrew Trimble (229), Paul Marshall (208) and Tommy Bowe (163) combined for exactly 600 caps during their long-standing Ulster careers, but all three have now bid the game adieu.
Along with the departures of the likes of Charles Piutau, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Callum Black and Robbie Diack, it's a much-changed dressing room at Kingspan Stadium this season.
Off the pitch there's been a shift too. Gone are Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes at the head of the coaching ticket, while in come Dan McFarland - who is yet to take up his role at the province full-time - and the recently retired Jared Payne, another player who has left the squad.
McCloskey, who is the ninth-highest caps earner on the Ulster roster with 82, admits it has been strange so far in pre-season given the absence of so many familiar faces.
"We had Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall, Tommy Bowe there for so long, and Luke Marshall is away injured, so he's another guy we are missing," McCloskey reflected.
"It has been different and we do miss those guys."
However, McCloskey does have glowing praise for Payne, who has transitioned seamlessly from the playing side of things into a well-drilled defence coach, who has been putting the players through their paces.
Always lauded for his technical ability, and the ease with which he read the game, Ulster saw the benefits of the New Zealander's coaching style towards the latter end of last season, and McCloskey hopes that will translate over this year.
"JP has been great, he is really starting to get his defensive schemes going and everyone is starting to get to know them," the centre enthused.
"He was trying to get them through the last seven games last season and he saw bits of it coming through with the results in those few games, but hopefully over this summer it will have time to embed and we will come out flying with it next season."
There's no time to waste, however, with the new season already rapidly approaching for the Kingspan Stadium outfit.
After pre-season friendlies at home to Gloucester on August 18 and away to Wasps a week later, Ulster welcome last season's Guinness PRO14 runners-up the Scarlets to Belfast before facing Edinburgh the following week.
Throw in an early season two-week tour of South Africa in rounds three and four and it's an unenviable start to the season, but McCloskey believes that's the kind of start Ulster need.
"It is a tough start, but it's two games (Scarlets and Edinburgh home) that we would expect to win," he said bullishly.
"Hopefully we have a good pre-season, I don't see any reason why we won't," he added.
"Scarlets will be looking to come out and win their first game, but hopefully at home that will give us the advantage."
The Bangor native added: "I missed the tour to South Africa last year, so it will be nice to get away there."
And in terms of personal goals for the season ahead?
"I just want to focus on getting fit, get involved in those early season games, put the best foot forward and try and play my best," McCloskey said.
"Just want to train well and give the coaches no reason not to think about me or drop me for games."