Stuart McCloskey: Best memory will be making that break

Centre enjoyed his Ireland debut despite nervousness about playing in Twickenham

Whether or not his second cap comes against Italy on Saturday week, Stuart McCloskey showed plenty of evidence in his first last Saturday that as well as the physique he has the ability and the temperament to play at Test level.

The pity was, of course, that Ireland lost, but the day will provide the 23-year-old Bangor bruiser with memories for life.

“The best memory of the day will be making a break in the second half, then standing for the national anthem at the start,” he says.

Until his break, his duties had mostly concerned tackling (nine in total, none missed) and passes. That he had to wait until the second half to start carrying hard at the English defence in trademark style and execute that break when going through Ben Youngs was due to circumstances.


“Yeah, we had a few strike plays, but then the setpiece didn’t quite go to plan. That’s the way games go sometimes. In the first half we lost a couple of lineouts and they were the ones we were going to go direct, and then the ones we won we were going wide. But I don’t mind playing that game either. I’m happy to play my part either way,” he says.


He admits that “not too many people get their first cap at Twickenham” but his nervousness was mingled with excitement. Asked if he felt comfortable in this more rarefied environment, he smiles and says: “As comfortable as anyone can feel going out in front of 82,000 people for your first cap. I wasn’t too nervous, I was more nervous earlier in the day, but once I got out there it was like a normal game of rugby really.”

He looks back on his debut and describes it as “alright”.

“A few improvements to make. I felt I built into the game okay. Got a bit more comfortable in the second half but improvements to be made,” he says.

As for the famed Joe Schmidt reviews, he smiles and says in his laidback style: "I think all the reviews are daunting, even the training reviews. I think the whole stance in training is the way he views the game, so every review you go into, if you've done something wrong you'll hear about it."

McCloskey's elevation to Test rugby is typical of his career graph. Although now considered a force of nature, McCloskey was a scrumhalf until he was 16 and then an outhalf until his final year at Bangor Grammar School, when he switched to inside centre at the behest of coach Jason Morgan.

“I got a bit taller and put on a bit of weight,” he says with a laugh. He attributes his size (6ft 4in and 17st 2lbs) to genetics: both his parents are 5ft 11in, rather than bulking up.

“I wouldn’t see it as overly heavy. It’s heavy for a centre but if you saw a 6ft 4in backrower, you’d be like, ‘That’s probably the right size’. So if I can keep my speed up I don’t see why I can’t put on more weight, as long as it’s good weight,” he says.

It wasn’t until joining Dungannon, while studying structural engineering and architecture at Queen’s University Belfast, that he began to catch the eye.

At Dungannon, he played in the Ulster Bank League alongside Paddy Jackson in a team coached by Kieran Campbell and Justin Fitzpatrick. He was brought into the Ulster sub-academy for a year, the full academy for another year and had a season on a development contract before signing his first two-year professional contract in January last year.

McCloskey made good strides until an elbow injury in December 2014 against Scarlets in the European Cup sidelined him for 12 weeks; he then picked up a red card against Edinburgh soon after his comeback and was, somewhat harshly, suspended for four weeks.

He attributes this season’s breakthrough to being injury-free and being afforded a run of games for Ulster – 18 in all, and all but two from the start.

Offloading game

“I’ve had a lot of passing practice, that’s probably what I work on most,” says McCloskey, who takes good lines, has good feet for a big man and has an offloading game, although he believes that part of his game has been overstated.

“A lot of people say I throw a lot of offloads, but I don’t throw as many as people say I do. I threw two at the weekend, but with Ulster in 18 games I think I’ve only thrown 25 offloads. I suppose that’s a reasonably large amount, but there is a lot I’ve held when I could’ve thrown them,” he says.

Needless to say, he strikes an appropriately diplomatic tone when admitting his desire to play against Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday week.

“I’d love to get my chance, but I don’t pick the team so I’ll see how it goes,” he says.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times