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Ulster will be ready to rock, vows Stuart McCloskey

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster's Stuart McCloskey says the province will have shaken off any lingering pre-season rust before the PRO12 campaign begins with the visit of Dragons on September 2.

Les Kiss' men lost 25-19 against Exeter in their friendly game over the weekend but the players will get a final hit-out on Friday evening with Northampton Saints and Canada's A side both visiting Kingspan in a double-header.

While Saturday represented a second loss of the summer - an inexperienced side were beaten by Leinster in Navan a week prior - the centre who made his Irish debut last season says being ready for the big kick-off in two weeks is all that matters.

"It was a good first hit out for a lot of us," he said of the defeat at a Sandy Park ground they will revisit in January for a Champions Cup clash. "A lot of young guys had a run out (against Leinster) but it was more experienced this week. We obviously didn't get the results we wanted but a few guys got the game time they needed.

"I think they had a lot of front-foot ball in the first 60 minutes but there was a lot of good defensive stuff we've been working on.

"We could have had better execution in some of the phases we tried but we'll get back to where we were over the next couple of weeks.

"Northampton and Canada A, everyone will get a good run out and hopefully we'll put a few more things together than we did (against Exeter). We're happy with the defensive side and I'm sure the attack will come."

A seemingly straightforward start to the league campaign could work in Ulster's favour.

The Dragons have not finished above the PRO12's bottom four in any of the last five years while Treviso, who the province will visit in the season's second week, have only managed the feat once in that timespan.

Ulster have laboured against both in the past, however, and the Welsh region only failed to register a win in Belfast last season thanks to a late penalty from the hosts' Paddy Jackson.

McCloskey knows that, with such fine margins between the top four in recent years, a good start will be imperative to achieve the goal of a home semi-final.

"At this stage it's just trying to get everything to click before we get to that Dragons game," he said. "There's not too much worry over losing games (at this time of year). I think we have 10 or 11 players away or injured who will all filter back in during those first two weeks.

"We'll be fine and just really want to get off to a winning start in the PRO12."

Saturday's defeat came despite scores from Jacob Stockdale and Rob Lyttle, two of the young guns vying for minutes in a backline loaded with international talent, and McCloskey was impressed by the pair.

"Jacob had a good game, and Rob came on and scored two tries," he said. "Rob was close to being man of the match in only 20 minutes."

While Lyttle made an eye-catching cameo, the Queen's back had been worried before his introduction that the chance would not come his way.

Beginning to wonder if his time would have been better spent with the Academy squad on their victorious visit to Jeremy Davidson's Aurillac, the 19-year-old instead made the most of his limited minutes with a fine pair of scores as the game came to a close.

"I was starting to think if I didn't get on soon I would have been better off with the Academy side but I came on and did rightly so I was pleased," he said.

"I've found it easier this year after being involved in the last pre-season a bit. I felt like I was part of the squad rather than just filling out the numbers.

"It's been tough but enjoyable and hopefully now leading into the season I can be pushing for a few caps."

Belfast Telegraph


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