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We haven't been far off a successful campaign: McCloskey

 

By Jonathan Bradley

While nobody inside Kingspan Stadium is claiming this season has gone according to plan, centre Stuart McCloskey rejects the idea that the campaign has been the unmitigated disaster it has been painted to be from the outside.

After beating Glasgow with a bonus point at home on Saturday evening, the embattled province still carry a slim hope of usurping Edinburgh for the Guinness PRO14's last available play-off spot and know that, at the very least, their hopes of Champions Cup qualification remain firmly in their own hands.

Besting Munster, again with the need for four tries thrown into the equation, while hoping Richard Cockerill's side take nothing from their hosting of Glasgow at Murrayfield, is the only way Ulster will sneak into the round-robin next weekend, a scenario that would result in a quick-fire return to Thomond Park for a quarter-final.

But win, lose or draw on Saturday evening, Jono Gibbes' side know that at the very worst they will host Ospreys in mid-May with a place in next season's Champions Cup up for grabs.

And, while not the end-of-season drama they had hoped for, McCloskey believes the side were only a win or two away from having a very different campaign.

Winning four games in Europe left them one victory, against Wasps in January, from securing a place in the last-eight for the first time since 2014, while games in the league, such as Zebre away and Edinburgh at home, slipped through the fingers.

"When you're here every week you see those fine margins," said McCloskey.

"If you see the big picture, some performances haven't been good enough, but when you look at some others, maybe balls haven't been caught at the right time, interceptions here and there, that can really swing the table.

"If we had a couple more wins, things would be a lot different. I think people need to see that sometimes we're not that far off.

"Look at this year, games that could have gone our way, if we'd beaten Edinburgh at home, if we'd beaten Wasps away it's a very different story. The whole picture would be totally different. The small margins haven't gone our way."

Missing the play-offs in this expanded format - the league added a round prior to the semi-finals with the addition of South African teams last summer - would still be a substantial missed target in anyone's book, but McCloskey notes the changing face of the championship this season.

Edinburgh have been rebuilt quicker than could have been imagined by Richard Cockerill, while slowly but surely the Italian teams are progressing under the guidance of Conor O'Shea, Kieran Crowley and Michael Bradley.

Zebre and Benetton have already secured more victories than ever before, while only Dragons and Southern Kings have failed to win at least a quarter of their games.

"A lot of teams are progressing," McCloskey confirmed. "It's not the league it was four years ago where you could walk into the play-offs.

"Then there was maybe only five good teams, there's eight good teams now. If you get caught on a few off days, you're right on the back foot.

"Teams are getting better. Edinburgh are a lot better, Treviso are pushing on and Zebre, I think they are pushing Connacht in the other conference. There's no more gimmies anymore.

"You'd still like the odd easy one but it is far better for the spectators the more these teams push on.

"There's so much more depth through the league, if you look at the top teams, they have two teams to put out that can be competitive and that wasn't the case three or four years ago either."

With their destiny dependent on events elsewhere, it may well prove to be too little too late for the play-offs, but the win over Glasgow was the third on the bounce, the first time the side have put together such a run since September.

Having also beaten in-form Edinburgh and Ospreys before the Warriors, confidence is presumably higher than it has been at any point during this most testing of campaigns.

Regardless of what it means by season's end, McCloskey thinks the latest victory is far more reflective of Ulster's spirit than what has been shown at times this season.

"There has obviously been a lot which has gone on this year and we're happy just to put it behind us and put in a good performance on the field and show what we're all about," he added.

"We just wanted to go out and put in a performance out there, we weren't really concentrating on the play-offs as we knew there was a slim chance if we got the five points. We've put that win behind us now and we push on.

"Whatever happens, whether it's a play-off for the Champions Cup or a play-off in the league, if we put another good performance in at Munster and see if results go our way we'll try to take this momentum into that whatever it's for.

"I think we've really turned up the last three weeks and shown what we're all about."

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