Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken has a resonance for many sports people. It is commonplace among the athletic fraternity to face a choice as a teenager or a young adult in favouring one sport to the exclusion of all others in pursuit of the prospect of a professional career.
Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey played off a three handicap in his teens, competing in a number of Boys tournaments around Ireland and initially considered that his sporting nirvana could be in traipsing fairways rather than ploughing a furrow in rugby, a sport he adopted as an 11-year-old when entering Bangor Grammar School.
‘More of a golfer’
He explained: “I would have been more of a golfer than a rugby player to be honest. I play out of Clandboye GC and have gone out to four. I used to be off three but it went up when I started to do weights. I would have played in a lot of boys tournaments around Ireland, including the Ulster under -18 (boys).”
McCloskey’s chance of sporting vocation was the net effect a growth spurt in his late teens. Today he stands just under six foot four inches, and weighs in at just under 16 and a half stone. It would require a few guesses to determine his original position in rugby.
He explained: “I was quite small. I played nine (scrumhalf) in my first year of the senior rugby [cycle] and I played 10 (outhalf) pushing towards centre for the last two years of senior rugby. I went through a bit of a growth spurt. I didn’t play any underage representative stuff.”
Former Ireland scrumhalf and head of Ulster's academy Kieran Campbell was coaching in Dungannon and invited McCloskey to play his rugby there in his first year out of school. In March, a couple of months shy of the end of the season his performances prompted him to be inculcated into the Ulster sub academy.
The graduation since for the 22-year-old has been measured from Ulster sub academy to academy and this year he signed his first senior contract. The contenders for the midfield positions in the Ulster team represent a list that is long on quality: Darren Cave, Jared Payne, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall, McCloskey and the departing Michael Allen.
, making a name at Grenoble in the French Top 14, would have been part of the academy set-up a few seasons ago while, in
, Ulster have one of the bright young inside centres in the game as the Ireland’s under-20 international proved this season. Arnold only turned 19 last month and will be part of the Nigel Carolan’s Irish squad that competes in the Under-20 World Championship in Italy next month.
This could have been a significant season for McCloskey in terms of restructuring the pecking order for the centres but his game time has been fractured by elbow surgery and a four-match ban for a tip tackle on Hamish Watson at a ruck against Edinburgh.
Having played four matches for the senior team and being chosen for the Emerging Ireland squad that travelled to play in the IRB Nations Cup in Romania last summer, he was looking forward to the challenging for a place in the Ulster squad.
“I am happy with how the season has gone when I have been on the field. The [elbow] injury took 11 weeks out of the season (He sustained it against the Scarlets in early December.) and obviously getting the ban didn’t help things.
“I think my defence has improved a lot this year. That was a big work-on for me last summer, just making those dominant hits and getting the turnovers that I should have been making. I am working on my distribution but I don’t think it is too far off the pace to be honest.
“Patience is a big thing. There are so many guys who are great 12s and 13s here so if you are starting for Ulster you’re not too far away from the international team. I came back for the Connacht game after the ban and all I wanted to do was get on and impress.
“It’s been the same for the last couple of games, just get on and show what I can do, given the coaches some selection headaches. Darren (Cave) is playing very well at 12. Hopefully Neil (Doak) has a hard decision to make.”
McCloskey’s contribution against Munster when introduced was the catalyst in helping to rescue a draw. On Saturday they must travel to Scotstoun in the hope that a victory can provide a home semi-final. “Everybody was a bit disappointed. We knew that with the chances we created we should have scored a few more tries.
“Not winning [against Munster] has put us into a position that we don’t want to be in going into the last game against the Glasgow Warriors on Saturday. The draw was a consolation because at one point it looked like we were going to lose the match.”
He won’t mind a second go with Emerging Ireland this summer, this time to Georgia for the Tbilisi Cup. “I have only played five matches since December. I just want to keep on playing rugby because it doesn’t seem like the end of the season to me. I’d love to go on that tour and be given an opportunity.”