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Ulster are ready to drown out the noise

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Dissent from critics has, somewhat obliquely, been referred to as "noise" by various members of the Ulster hierarchy this season, and Stuart McCloskey is hopeful the province can silence their doubters with an unlikely win over Leinster in the RDS this evening (5.35pm kick-off).

The first 120 minutes of this three game inter-pro slate left more than a few locals up in arms, including as it did a record defeat to Connacht and a half of rugby where Ulster were dominated on their own Kingspan patch by Munster to the tune of a 17-0 interval deficit.

A stunning second-half comeback against the southern province, admittedly one aided by an opposition red card, offered some degree of vindication to the company line that things are progressing as hoped, but the prevailing mood around Kingspan could still hardly be described as rosy.

"I think the majority of the fans are brilliant," said McCloskey. "But you get the odd guy who maybe doesn't quite know what they're talking about.

"People saying there's no heart, no passion, and that players aren't doing it for the badge, that's completely inaccurate.

"There's no lack of heart and passion in this team, maybe our skill level hasn't been there, but when we put it together you can see how good we can be.

"We've lost four out of 16, Leinster have lost two and they're talked about as the best team in Europe so we can't be doing that badly.

"We're not too far off but, obviously, there are things we'd like to be doing better."

As the Irish international alludes to, the challenge awaiting Ulster today could hardly be bigger.

Even before one considers Ulster's barren run in Dublin - they have won only one away fixture against Leinster since 1999 - Leo Cullen's men are in imperious form, beating Aviva Premiership table-toppers Exeter home and away last month before seeing off the challenges of both Munster and Connacht either side of the New Year.

"We're going down to Leinster, and it's the toughest game you'll get either in Europe or the league," admitted McCloskey. "We'll try and put our game in place and hopefully get a result.

"It's tough to win down there, if you look at any team they struggle. Off the top of my head I can't think of anyone who goes there and wins comfortably.

"They've been the best team in the Pro14 and the Pro12 for the last seven or eight years.

"But we'll go down there and try to put our game-plan in place and see what happens.

"I saw some ridiculous stat that they have 30 internationals or something like that. That's why they are probably considered the best team in Europe.

"We've also got a few injuries, and through other circumstances some of our best players aren't available, but we have to make the best of what we have.

"Nick Timoney has come in there this year and been brilliant. He has played a lot and has really shown what he can do. Guys stepping up like that has been great because Marcel (Coetzee) is out and he is probably one of our best players.

"We're not in that bad of a position in the league considering the injuries and all that."

While debate will no doubt continue to swirl over Ulster performances, especially should they falter in their Champions Cup pool deciders against La Rochelle and Wasps later this month, nobody could argue that McCloskey has been part of any problem.

Today's game is his 13th provincial start of the season and he has been a key figure for the side after what he admits was an indifferent run of form to finish off the 2016/17 campaign.

It's been enough to earn a recall into the Ireland squad - he had been stuck on one cap since making his debut against England in 2016 - and he did well in his November outing against Fiji.

With the Six Nations inching ever closer, he'll have a chance today to show national head coach Joe Schmidt what he can do against the presumed first choice midfield of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.

"I haven't really thought about it that way to be honest," he says of the upcoming championship. "I've just been thinking about going out and doing the job that Les has set for me.

"I always look at it that if I'm playing well for Ulster then there's no reason I can't do it for Ireland. I just concentrate on going out there and doing the role he has for me for the game. I improved my work-rate over the summer. I think I'm fitter than I've ever been which shows, I haven't really been injured this year, and I've played 80 minutes most games. I think I've played well this year but there's always bits and pieces you have to do better."

Against today's opponents indeed, Ulster will need to be at their very best.

Verdict: Leinster

Even at the peak of their powers, away wins in Dublin have been hard to come by for Ulster in the pro era and even with Rory Best, Sean Reidy, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale back in harness, Leinster should have the strength in depth to back a third successive inter-provincial victory.

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