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Staying power can help Ulster give fans plenty to shout about, says McCloskey

 

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Running man: Stuart McCloskey surges forward against Scarlets in the Champions Cup, and is now eager to finish the job and achieve knockout rugby

Running man: Stuart McCloskey surges forward against Scarlets in the Champions Cup, and is now eager to finish the job and achieve knockout rugby

Iain Henderson

Iain Henderson

Running man: Stuart McCloskey surges forward against Scarlets in the Champions Cup, and is now eager to finish the job and achieve knockout rugby

When Ulster last visited Welford Road in 2014, they did so on the back of four consecutive appearances in the quarter-finals of European competition.

A young Stuart McCloskey made his Champions Cup debut in the centre that October evening, alongside Jared Payne in a midfield battle that would see them go head-to-head with Manu Tuilagi.

Despite fighting back to claim a losing bonus point, Ulster fell 25-18 to start a European campaign that, with the all-conquering Toulon at home the next week, didn't really get going.

The streak of last eight places came to an end and, in the years since, they haven't been back.

At the very least, the bookies fancy that to change this afternoon as the province head back to the scene of McCloskey's European bow knowing that they need just a point to ensure their progress.

After joking that he'd be watching last night's game with an Edinburgh jersey on, McCloskey admitted that giving the fans knockout rugby to look forward to is huge motivation.

"It would be amazing," he said. "I've never got to the quarter-finals of Europe and that's in five years of trying so it's something that we're really aiming for.

"We know we've put ourselves in the position to get there and it's about executing this week and hopefully going out and putting our best foot forward."

The position of which McCloskey speaks is hardly one many predicted in the first year of head coach Dan McFarland's reign.

Last season's struggle to even qualify for this year's tournament had a knock-on effect on their seeding, throwing them into a pool alongside last season's runners-up, beaten semi-finalists and a two-time champion.

Having won four of five to date though, there has certainly seemed to be more of a resolve to the team this year, one that has them on the brink of what would have to be considered an unexpected achievement.

"Last year we were pretty close, even though we didn't have a great year overall, and we struggled the year before but we're normally there or thereabouts so it's just about taking that last step and getting there," McCloskey said.

"We seem to have come out on the right side of a lot of (tight) games.

"It doesn't feel much different but we're confident coming into the end of games. We got that win against Edinburgh at the start of the year, the ones against Scarlets too. We just seem to be coming out on the right side. Hopefully it keeps going like that."

The side received the sizeable boost of a return from Iain Henderson when the team was announced yesterday, the lock back in the side only a month after surgery that was expected to keep him out for 10 weeks.

The last time the Irish international was seen was in the back-to-back wins over Scarlets in December, the 10-point clean sweep that ensured Ulster were to be a factor in this pool.

While that didn't always appear to be the case, McCloskey is convinced the side can tangle with the best whenever injuries and player management allow the rarity of a full-strength team.

"That or maybe the week before was the first time we got our full team out on the pitch, or close to it," he said.

"I think we've seen that when we have our best 15 out on the pitch we're a good match for anyone, we've maybe just struggled when we've had a few boys missing for whatever reason."

There is one notable absentee today, however, with John Cooney only named on the bench.

The influential scrum-half had been a doubt for the crucial win over Racing last week and failed a fitness test prior to the game.

In his absence, David Shanahan did what was required and McCloskey thinks his former flat-mate is more than capable of guiding the side into the last eight.

"I think John was struggling a bit last week, he was questionable maybe from Thursday so Shanners had a fair idea he was 50-50 to play," he said.

"Everyone in this squad knows how important he is, and how good he is. Maybe he cops some flak for things that aren't really his fault.

"He's a class operator and he gets the ball away quicker than most nines I know. He just did it this time for the full game rather than 20 minutes he normally gets at the end.

"Cooney brings that extra bit with the goal-kicking but Shanners' box-kicking was good on the weekend.

"I think he has this dimension where he's so quick to the breakdown. We have the utmost faith in him if he does play."

Without Cooney, Ulster are also deprived of their first-choice goal kicker. Billy Burns would usually shoulder the responsibility but had tightened up against Racing.

McCloskey has experience of having to shoulder the load himself when both Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson were on World Cup duty in 2015 but was only too happy to let Will Addison take responsibility last week and in the future should the need arise again.

"I wanted no part in it," he laughed. "I was 15th choice.

"I've served my time there and no more."

Dealing with Tuilagi again presumably is quite enough to occupy himself with this afternoon.

Match verdict: Ulster

The return of Iain Henderson is just the boost that Ulster needed ahead of the big game. The Lions lock brings a punch that few else can muster and beefs up a pack that has looked pretty handy at this level when at full strength. Tigers' position is a double edged sword but Ulster will be bitterly disappointed not to get the job done having put themselves in position.

Belfast Telegraph