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Ulster keen to home in on a Belfast quarter-final, insists Stuart McCloskey

Adding up: Stuart McCloskey believes Ulster now have real strength in depth
Adding up: Stuart McCloskey believes Ulster now have real strength in depth
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster are no strangers to do-or-die clashes in the Champions Cup, entering round six in three of the past four seasons with a chance of making the last-eight.

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On each of those occasions, though, the tense final weekend fixtures have been set up with wins in prior January matches, must-win games in this competition usually beginning the moment a team suffers their first loss.

Win, lose or draw in Clermont this weekend (Saturday, 1pm kick-off), Dan McFarland's men are already assured of carrying their quarter-final ambitions into next week's hosting of Bath at Kingspan Stadium.

Indeed, with Clermont themselves travelling to a Harlequins outfit with nothing to play for, it's hard to foresee either of these sides missing out on progression to the next round.

As Stuart McCloskey points out, however, ensuring a second successive place in the knockouts is not the only incentive for the visitors to the Stade Marcel-Michelin, where a win would put them in the box seat to ensure that their quarter-final would be staged in Belfast for the first time since 2014.

"A home quarter is what we aim for," said the inside centre, who was man of the match last time out against Munster and whose recent form is pressing a claim for Six Nations involvement with Ireland next month.

"It was one of my goals, personally, at the start of the year and it's where we want to go as a team. It's obviously a massive carrot but I know it'll be a big challenge. I'm sure we'll have a good game plan for it and we'll go there hoping to get a win."

It's unlikely that any number of the Ulster squad would have held such a goal before last season when, after an absence of four years, getting out of the pools by hook or by crook would have been seen as a significant sign of progression.

Having battled their way out of a tough pool with five wins to meet Leinster in the Aviva Stadium in what was an ultimately credible defeat, the loftier goals are a sign of a closing gap to Europe's elite.

While the likes of Leinster and Saracens can still be viewed as a different league, McFarland has ensured the northern province are not viewed as also-rans either.

For McCloskey, the key to ensuring competitiveness on both domestic and European fronts is depth, something that has expanded over the past 18 months thanks to an influx of young debutants from the Academy.

"Who's won (the Champions Cup) over the last few years?" said McCloskey. "Leinster and Saracens, who you'd say have the biggest squads in Europe. That's the way you do it.

"If you want to fight on both fronts, in the Pro14 and in Europe, you have to have a big squad with a lot of good players.

"That's one change this year (with Ulster) especially from the last two or three years, where we've had a group of maybe 20 players.

"This year we have 30, 35 players who can all step in and do a great job. I think you've seen that this year even in the centre.

"I know James (Hume) came in at the start of the year and did really well before unfortunately getting injured. Angus (Curtis) was doing a good job before that knee injury, and we've got Stewart Moore coming through as well.

"So we have a lot of young guys coming through that we maybe didn't have two or three years ago, and it's great. It pushes myself and Lukey (Marshall) and Will (Addison) when he steps into centre to that next level, which we didn't have in previous years."

That, coupled with improved results, has in turn brought confidence to a squad who only 18 months ago were rounding off what was perhaps their most heavily criticised season of the professional era.

Halfway through McFarland's second season at the helm, Ulster head back into Europe having won seven of their last eight - with that sole defeat coming against Leinster with a much-changed panel - and have bagged a try-bonus point on five occasions since the final weekend of November.

"Well, when you have John Cooney leading you, you can't not be confident," joked McCloskey of the side's diminutive talisman.

"It's not something we really speak about, belief. But yeah, I think we believe we can beat anybody, especially when we're at home. I think that's now a year, a year and a bit that we haven't lost here, and it's become a real fortress.

"We are trying to bring that to the away games as well.

"There are a lot of guys in good form. We've got two bonus-point wins in a row.

"When you have this collective group of players who have probably won seven or eight games in a row, there's nothing not to be confident about.

"Hopefully we can carry that confidence on to this week but we know that it will be a big challenge."

Four years on from their last win in France, the reward on offer is equally sizeable.

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