Stuart McCloskey hoping he remains central to Farrell’s World Cup plans

Last Saturday marked the Ulster centre’s seventh start in Ireland’s last nine Tests and he attributes the change in his fortunes to a little overdue luck

The vagaries and variances of World Cup squad selections were illustrated yesterday by Ian Foster and Steve Borthwick.

The All Blacks opted for 18 forwards and 15 backs, whereas England went with a 19-14 split, meaning the former could accommodate four centres and the latter only three, and as a consequence, Henry Slade missed out.

The classy, 30-year-old Exeter centre started four of England’s Six Nations games and only played the last 10 minutes of their lamentable defeat by Wales last Saturday, yet suffered for being a specialist outside centre in Borthwick’s 19-14 split.

No less than Slade, many countries would happily take a quality centre like Stuart McCloskey but the Ulsterman could be the unluckiest Irish player to miss out if Andy Farrell also opts for 19 forwards and 14 backs when finalising his squad in three weeks’ time.


“Ah, I haven’t really thought about it too much,” said McCloskey in the aftermath of Saturday’s 33-17 win over Italy.

“Listen, four centres went to the last World Cup. Hopefully there’s four that go to this World Cup and I’m one of them,” he said, in reference to Joe Schmidt accommodating Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell in a 31-man squad which had a 17-14 split.

Schmidt gave himself some elbow room by naming just two scrumhalves, with Joey Carbery providing cover to Conor Murray and Luke McGrath, as he did in 2015, when Ian Madigan was theoretically third choice ‘9′ to Murray and Eoin Reddan.

But let’s presume that, ala Borthwick and Foster, Farrell brings six props, three hookers and both three scrumhalves and three outhalves. Then the Ireland coach could emulate Foster by bringing nine rather than 10 back five forwards and so accommodate nine midfielders/back three players in an 18-15 split. Or, ala Borthwick, he could go with 10 back five forwards and one less back in a 19-14 split.

“I started seven of the last nine/10 games at ‘12′ and we have won them all, so hopefully that puts me in fairly good stead that I can be trusted in fairly big games,” McCloskey added, perhaps indicating he had thought about this just a tad.

But it was a not unreasonable point, for last Saturday did mark McCloskey’s seventh start in Ireland’s last nine Tests, which amply highlights his value and the attrition rate in the Irish midfield ever since the remarkably resolute Gordon D’Arcy-Brian O’Driscoll partnership.

Bearing all this in mind, the All Blacks’ 18-15 split accommodating four centres looks to have a better balance to it, especially as two of potentially five locks, Tadhg Beirne and Ryan Baird, can cover blindside, in addition to five backrowers. Selecting the latter there last week, and Caelan Doris at ‘7′, may also be a pointer to Farrell doing likewise.

Asked if the players themselves indulge in the guessing game, McCloskey did concede: “Yeah, I would say guys would lie to you and tell you no but I’m sure they do and that they’ve looked at squads. I know I have looked at squads in the past and at who normally goes and what the make-up of the squad will be.

“But who knows who will be in it. I’m sure you guys will name probable squads and all that and you probably won’t be too far off either the way this team has been going.”

He also paused at length when asked if he might suffer for being a specialist ‘12′.

“Not so much in this team but when Joe was coaching definitely it definitely hindered me in terms of getting games as I just play 12 but Robbie is a world-class 13 when he plays there, Ringer is the best 13 in the world at the minute,” he ventured with regard to Ringrose.

“I think I am a pretty good ‘12′ and if I play there the other guys can move around and be just as good in other positions so I hope it doesn’t hinder me. But if it does it is what it is.”

McCloskey turned 31 on Sunday, yet prior to last season’s November opener against South Africa, his first eight caps had been scattered over six seasons, dating back to his debut against England in February 2016. He didn’t make the squad to New Zealand, only being called up as a late replacement for the second Maori game.

“Last summer, when I wasn’t involved in the tour to New Zealand, I probably thought that I wouldn’t play for Ireland too much again. To get that opportunity and come back in to play so many games has been a dream. I have really enjoyed being here. I just want to keep enjoying it while I’m here and hopefully I’ll get on that plane and play a pretty big role when we get out there in what should be a pretty big World Cup for us,” said McCloskey.

He wasn’t swinging from the chandeliers about his or the team’s performance last Saturday, but he did play very solidly. Aki and Henshaw being sidelined by suspension and injury opened the door for him against South Africa last November and he attributes his change of fortune to, well, just that.

“Probably a bit of luck. I don’t think I played my best for Ireland before when I got the opportunity. I think I got six caps before the start of this year. I had a decent game against the Maori All Blacks when I went out there. It’s just luck a lot of the time.

“Bundee and Robbie are playing brilliantly for the last five or six years at 12 and 13 for Ireland and for the Lions as well so it was pretty hard to break in when they were two of the best 12s in the world for a good number of years.

“Hopefully in the last year I have shown that when I do get an opportunity in a team like this that I can play well and be in that sort of calibre of player.”

Better late than never, undoubtedly, that he’s done.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times