Ulster still fancy chances of making knockout stages in Europe

Stuart McCloskey believes province are close to clicking as a squad as they face Exeter

"Yes, we can" has been the Ulster chorus echoing around Kingspan Stadium. It has been more clearly heard there, perhaps, than in their Sandy Park destination this weekend in Exeter.

Sean Reidy, Les Kiss and Stuart McCloskey were all agreed this week that Ulster's ambitions to reach the knockout stages in Europe have not yet perished. They silently blame the defeat to Scarlets last week in the Pro12 on a hurried rule change and a hasty decision from referee Marius Mitrea that handed Scarlets a try and Reidy the bin for a high tackle.

However, McCloskey, a powerhouse in recent games, even if Ulster collectively have not been, believes there is light ahead for the province. He is less convinced, or maybe just more pragmatic, about his chances of muscling his way on to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the Six Nations Championship.

McCloskey has been there before. He knows the scenery and while he can see the Irish centre configurations from this far out, he’s rightly confident in his ability.

“He’ll obviously be watching,” says McCloskey of Schmidt. “If I put in some good performances and play well here . . . I don’t see why I couldn’t play for Ireland. Obviously it’s Robbie’s [Henshaw] shirt at the minute. He’s playing well, so he’ll probably have to do something wrong for me to get in.”

Individual errors

It is a distraction that McCloskey does not want right now. To be speaking of Ireland and the Six Nations days before their win-or-bust effort in Exeter is breaking the first rule in the players’ do-not-do manual.

Ulster didn’t score after half-time last week. That was more of a concern than a refereeing decision.

“Obviously, I don’t think any team is happy if they don’t score after half-time,” he says. “We had chances. We put them under pressure and had about 300 metres gained to their 50. They didn’t really do a lot. The weather out there was pretty appalling and didn’t really lend itself to great rugby.

“Yeah, we have to be more clinical when we are up there and on their line, make the most of it. Last week, it was just individual errors, but last week the heavens opened for about 80 minutes the whole day before and it was pretty greasy.

“Guys dropped balls they don’t normally drop and we couldn’t get that momentum around the corner because guys were obviously struggling to catch the ball. They struggled to get anything going. It was tough for both teams but obviously they took that maul try . . . yeah, we should have done better.”

Quality players

There is also talk of regrouping and galvanising the squad. McCloskey regards suggestions that Ulster are broken and need mending as over-reaching and negative. He believes they are a quality group of players who are just seeking an effective means of expression.

Exeter have their strengths, especially at home. However, the English team are not Clermont and they are not Leinster.

“A couple of losses recently and everyone kind of sat down,” says McCloskey. “We didn’t regroup per se but just want to get on the same page again. We know we are close. We are not that far away. We lost with only three points away last week and Scarlets aren’t a bad team.

“The last two away losses we’ve had were against Clermont and Leinster and they are not exactly bad teams, to be fair. The teams we’ve lost to recently we’ve just not quite been there for 20 minutes of the game. That’s where it’s got away from us.”

Twenty minutes is quite a chunk of time for a match to trickle out of reach.

“I don’t think we are too far away,” he says.

Yes, we can.