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Ulster need fast start to see off the Cheetahs: McCloskey

Cheetahs v Ulster, Guinness Pro14 Championship: Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein, Tomorrow, 6.15pm

By Adam McKendry

After three days in Bloemfontein, there has yet to be a cloud in the sky, and as the South African sun continues to beat down, it has affected Ulster's plans for the week.

A safari trip was cancelled to protect the players from prolonged exposure to the sun, meaning any chance of seeing some indigenous wildlife would have to be in Bloemfontein Zoo as opposed to the bush.

But with yesterday turning into a down day instead, it allowed for plenty of looking ahead to what the side will face tomorrow against a different kind of animal - a pack of Cheetahs.

And according to centre Stuart McCloskey, the South Africans that will take to the field (kick-off 6.15pm UK time) will pose just as much of a threat to the Ulstermen as the real things.

"I know if we'd lost three in a row this game would be massive for us at home," McCloskey says in relation to the Cheetahs' start that has seen them ship 136 points in their first three games of the new season.

"I know they're a young team, a lot of 22 and 23-year olds, I know they lost a lot of older heads and experienced guys, but a wounded animal can sometimes be the most dangerous. We're preparing for anything.

"They can score, same as Southern Kings, from anywhere, and they came third last year so they're maybe not a bad team, they're just in a bad run of form. We're trying to not be the ones where they get off the mark and get on a run again."

On paper, it's an unfair match-up, the winless Bloemfontein outfit coming up against in-form Ulster, who haven't suffered a competitive loss since April and have started the new season with three wins from three.

Tomorrow's hosts were ravaged in the off-season, losing 13 players, and so far they seem to be suffering from second season syndrome having made the playoffs in the Guinness PRO14 last season in their debut campaign.

But, at home in the altitude of the Free State, the Cheetahs become a different prospect to the side that collapsed to heavy defeats by Munster and the Ospreys, even if Glasgow did end up hitting a half century of points against them last week.

McCloskey admits that the conditions have taken their toll on the squad, who were put through their paces at Grey College in a heavy session on Tuesday, and they'll have to adapt quickly.

The Bangor man insists: "I don't think heat has been much of an issue because coming out of pre-season it's been pretty warm.

"It seemed like altitude, the back of your throat is a bit dry and it's hard to get air in. It's not horrendous, it's just an extra 10 or 15 per cent harder than it is normally.

"So it's just getting used to it because the altitude is a lot different than I thought it was going to be."

For Ulster, the chance to be four from four going into back-to-back interpros against Munster and Connacht ahead of Europe would be a massive boost, particularly after a start that could have yielded two home defeats as opposed to two wins.

Now, with only a misfiring Cheetahs side standing between them and their 100% record heading to Thomond Park, there's a sense that this young squad has something about them.

McCloskey has felt it too, and believes that there's something within the team that has seen them carry over their brilliant finish to last season into the new campaign.

"Nobody's really said it, it's just a feeling. We go out there and, even if we're not playing at our best, we just seem to be staying in games, whereas last year we got into a bit of a rut around December to March where the whole club seemed to be struggling a bit," he reveals.

"What the reasons for that were I don't know, there were a lot of injuries and stuff going on outside, but I think we've really bounced back out of it and now everybody's working together and there's a great team spirit.

"We just think we're a good side and we want to keep on this run. I think that really carried us through the first two games where we maybe weren't quite firing at full strength, but there have been some good individual performances."

After last week's game in Port Elizabeth where, arguably, Ulster let a bonus point slip away despite a 28-7 win over the Southern Kings, the squad have acknowledged there are improvements to be made.

McCloskey admits that perhaps the quality of rugby hasn't deserved that extra point, however the 26-year old isn't worrying about the lack of tries and preaches patience ahead of tomorrow's game.

"We said at the start of the year, with two home games and two games in South Africa, we'd try to go four from four," the Ireland international confesses.

"We've achieved that so far - we maybe would have liked a bonus point along the way but I don't think our rugby has deserved a bonus point, we've only just deserved to win the three games.

"We're just looking to go out and get a good performance this week and hopefully put a few good 20-minute spells together into an 80-minute performance.

"If the tries come, the tries come, but we're just looking to win first of all."

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