Ulster won’t see red in bid for Euro place
McCloskey urges calm before huge Scarlets showdown
When Stuart McCloskey first pulled on the Ulster number 12 jersey, the side were in the midst of Heineken Cup fever.
In the spring of 2014, Ulster were preparing for the knockouts as Europe’s top seed, their first home quarter-final since Toulouse in 1998 proving to be the hottest ticket in town.
There was even talk at the time of Ulster fans joining Saracens’ supporters clubs to get their hands on some of the London visitors’ allocation.
McCloskey didn’t play that day against Mark McCall’s men — the 2016 and ‘17 winners were on their way to a first final after Jared Payne’s fifth minute red card — and the northern province haven’t been back to that stage since.
While the decline has been sharp, the pool stages of Europe’s top competition has still provided the Ulster centre with memories of victories over glamour sides like Clermont, Toulouse and, most recently, La Rochelle.
The realisation that participation in next season’s comptition is by no means assured has been sudden. After last week’s loss to Edinburgh, Ulster are in fourth place in the PRO14’s Conference B, a position that would earn only a play-off game for a 2018/19 Champions Cup spot, while Benetton are improbably only eight points back with a decidedly more favourable fixture list over the last six games.
“The first time I thought about (not qualifying) was looking at the table at the weekend,” McCloskey said. “I saw an article and someone mentioned it. I was like ‘flip’.
“I’ve never played at Ulster and thought about not being in the Champions Cup, but yeah realistically it’s something that could happen.
“It speaks volumes of the league, I think there’s a lot more good teams in the league than maybe there was three or four years ago.
“When I started there was pretty much a guarantee you’d get top four, whereas now you have Edinburgh getting better, Treviso have won eight games and that’s never happened before.
“Zebre have also won four games, I think, and the only team that hasn’t performed this year is the Southern Kings.
“But every other team is capable of beating any team on any day which wasn’t the case three years ago.”
There have been improvements, of course, most notably the work of Kieran Crowley in Treviso and Richard Cockerill in Edinburgh but those who have watched Ulster with any regularity this season will also say that the side are no longer at a level where qualification seems a foregone conclusion.
“Yeah, you could say that,” acknowledged McCloksey. “That was a good squad we had three years ago and I think there’s a slight sort of changing of the guard going on at the minute.
“There’s a lot of guys coming to the end of their career and maybe a few younger guys coming in, but that’s the way the cycle of any team will go; you’ll have years like that.
“I think we’ve also been very unlucky with injuries. I think if you look at our injury profile and players unavailable, there’s maybe eight, nine players who could potentially start in the team who aren’t playing at all.
“So, I think any team is going to struggle if they have that many injuries.”
Injuries and unavailability aside — and McCloskey is arguably playing down the issue by saying Ulster are only without “eight or nine” would-be starters — what is left of the side needs to make strides over the next two months.
Six remaining games will be played over nine weeks, starting tonight against the Scarlets in Llanelli (7.35pm kick-off ).
Ulster haven’t won at Parc y Scarlets in their last five visits, while the league champions’ undefeated run at home in the PRO14 dates all the way back to September of 2016.
In short, it is not an ideal fixture for a side in need of points, even with the hosts bulk contributors to the Welsh national side who will do battle with Ireland earlier today in the Six Nations.
“They’re a great attacking side with a lot of flair,” added McCloskey. “They play a lot in the wide channels and they’ve the best ball-handling forwards in Europe at the minute.
“We’ve been working on a lot of things to counteract that, but hopefully we get to attack a bit too.
“If there’s going to be a week to beat Scarlets, it’ll be this week with their internationals away and coming off the back of two defeats in a row.
“If we’d beaten Edinburgh at the weekend, it would have taken a lot of pressure off our shoulders.
“But I don’t think we’ve looked too much further ahead than Scarlets this week and then Glasgow back at home.
“They are obviously two big games for us and if we can get two big wins, we’re right back in it.
“I know Scarlets have us this week and then Leinster again, so effectively if we could win our next two games, we could flip the table and Scarlets might be in a bad position.
“The league changes very quickly these days.”
Given the current standings, Ulster had better hope he’s right.