Stuart McCloskey eager to add to his sole Ireland cap
Leinster’s visit to the Kingspan provides plenty of motivation for Ulster centre
Stuart McCloskey at an Ulster training session at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
It’s a bit of an odd one alright. To date Stuart McCloskey has just had the one cap, in the Six Nations two seasons ago against the then all-conquering England, at Twickenham of all places. Most of us thought he played pretty well, but he hasn’t been seen in an Irish shirt since.
Now though, with Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne sidelined for the Guinness Autumn Series, and Robbie Henshaw seemingly converted to outside centre, it could be that McCloskey will bridge that 18-month gap.
He attributes his good form this season primarily to being fit and healthy.
“Two years ago, when I played for Ireland, I didn’t get injured through the whole season really except for a wee calf strain and I was Player of the Year up here.
“Last season I broke my foot, tore my calf and hurt my elbow. Pretty much everything went wrong. When you’re only playing half the games it’s hard to put your foot down. But when I got a good run of games towards the end of the season I started to play well again and carried it in to this season.”
Indeed, two seasons ago, McCloskey played 23 times for Ulster, all but two from the start, whereas a pair of protracted spells on the sidelines, through October and November, and then from mid-February to mid-April, restricted him to 13 starts and three appearances off the bench and ruled him out of both the autumnal and Six Nations windows.
He’ll certainly come into the November window match-hardened again. Of late he’s been carefully managed by the Ulster fitness trainers, Jonathan Davies and Kevin Geary, especially with this week’s six-day turnaround and given the toll placed on him last week when making 19 carries against La Rochelle, more than any other player in the match. He has played in seven of Ulster’s eight games to date, completing 80 minutes in all of them.
McCloskey’s career is a reminder that it’s not imperative to be a superstar at schools or underage level. Even players such as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton had to bide their time, and perhaps that also gives an additional competitive edge to those players.
McCloskey didn’t even train with the Ulster senior players for the first time until he was 20, and didn’t make his debut until he was 21. Because of this, he also feels he was more physically developed and ready.
McCloskey was reared in Bangor but although his dad Wilson, who owned his own landscaping business, played as an full-back with Ards, he didn’t take up the game himself until the age of 10 at Donaghadee Rugby Club.
Both his parents were very sports-minded, and previously he played football for a club in Belfast called St Andrews, as a striker. But once McCloskey went to Bangor Grammar School, rugby took over. McCloskey, who is 6ft 3in and 109 kg (17st 2lb), does not get his height from his dad.
“My dad’s only 5ft 11in, but my mum (Alison) is 5ft 11in, so I think me and my brother get out our height from her. My brother, Ross, is my height, but he’s a big rake; so skinny,” says McCloskey. “He plays for Bangor’s firsts, as a ‘10’ or ‘15’.
McCloskey didn’t not have an exceptional schools career, failing to make any underage representative sides.
“I was more a golfer. I played off four when I was about 15 but then never got any better. Paul Dunne was winning all those tournaments when I was playing.”
He loved playing schools rugby with Bangor GS, although back then was initially a scrumhalf cum outhalf.
“I was quite small in school. I played ‘9’ and ‘10’ until upper sixth, which is our last year, and then became more a 10-12 when I got a bit of a growth spurt at 17 and put on a bit of weight. I was tiny. Before we go on away trips, we make a presentation about ourselves, and I was showing some of the boys pictures of me when I was 16 and they couldn’t believe it. ‘That is not you.’ I was 5ft 6in.”
McCloskey freely admits: “I never even contemplated playing professional rugby until I was maybe 19.”
Joining Dungannon changed all that. In his last year at school, his coach at Bangor GS, David Kennedy, knew Ciaran Campbell, the former Ulster, Connacht and London Irish scrumhalf who is now the head of the Ulster academy and was then coaching Dungannon.
Campbell came to watch McCloskey and liked what he saw. He swiftly broke from the seconds into the first team, who were in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League. Dungannon had several players who were in the Ulster academy at the time, such as Paddy Jackson, Chris Farrell and Peter Nelson.
Campbell asked Allen Clarke, the head of the Ulster academy at the time, to watch McCloskey play.
“He asked me to join the sub academy the next season and I thought, ‘ah, give it a go’. It was weird, because I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I was just playing for a bit of craic. I was at ‘uni’ and at the time there were still giving match fees so it was a bit of money for going out and stuff.”
McCloskey had turned 20 when he went into the sub Academy, continuing to play with Dungannon regularly as well as for the Ulster ‘A’s. Promoted for a year to the full Academy in 2013-14, he made the first of four appearances for the Ulster team as a replacement against the Dragons.
He never did finish his studies in Structural Engineering with Architecture in Queen’s University, although he’s studying Economics now in Open University. But with his call-up to the sub-Academy, he figures it was then or never.
“I thought I had a decent chance if I gave it a go. My mum and dad said I could always go back to university.”
“I don’t know why I thought I had a decent chance, because there’s loads of bloody centres here,” he says, laughing. “They’re coming out of your ears.”
“I think it was because I had a bit of a niche. I was the only sort of big centre.”
Such was the logjam that Chris Farrell decamped to Grenoble before pitching up at Munster. That was before the 2014-15 season, the same year that McCloskey was upped to a development contract, and played 15 games for Ulster, nine from the start.
After turning 23, his first year as a professional, 2015-16, constituted his breakthrough season. Cave and Payne’s inclusion in Ireland’s World Cup squad afforded him an early run of games and, come the Six Nations, Payne’s hamstring injury then saw Henshaw shifted to outside centre for that game in Twickenham.
“Although we lost (21-10) it was a great experience. I’d never played before so many people before. I’ve only ever played in front of 20 or 25,000.
“I’ve looked at it again and, honestly, I thought I played alright,” he says, smiling. “But I think if JP was fit, he and Rob were always going to play, which I totally appreciate. I didn’t play well enough to unhinge JP or Robbie, so I think it was fair enough, but I’d love to have had another game since then.”
His mum, dad and girlfriend, Hannah, were all at Twickenham. He still has his Irish jersey, and the English one given him by his opposite number Owen Farrell.
“We played Saracens twice that season as well, so he gave me his jersey and didn’t ask for mine. He gets a really bad rep but he’s a really nice bloke. I couldn’t speak highly enough of him.”
McCloskey missed out on the tour to South Africa, and admits: “That was disappointing at the time. I felt I was playing well. I thought I was unlucky not to go, but last year I didn’t tear it up when I played. I wasn’t special enough.”
Inevitably there were work-ons from Joe Schmidt.
“Work rate, just getting fitter, my passing, and some of the stuff in defence. I think I’m a good tackler, it’s just maybe putting more pressure on and going harder at people. I sort of wait for people to come to me sometimes whereas he feels I need to go and get them, which I totally agree with. So I’ve been working on that.”
“But I think I’ve worked on them all. Ask any of the coaches here, I’m fitter than I’ve ever been – a bit leaner than I have been before. It was just a good summer, working hard.”
His passing game has, to some degree, been restricted by his role as the team’s prime carrier in the absence of Marcel Coetzee.
“Here, I need to carry 15 to 20 times a game,” he says, and indeed, he has carried 112 times in his seven games this season (making a healthy 411 metres), which is an average of 16 a game, although he has still made 42 passes, as well as freeing his hands for a dozen offloads and scoring three tries.
“Against the Cheetahs, Marcel, Jean [Deysel] and I played, and I remember I had 10 or 11 carries, and a few more passes, against last weekend, when I had maybe 19 carries, something like that. That’s just the way it’s going to be, and I don’t mind. I’ll do whatever role they ask me to do here.”
His offloading game has come on too, in part the product of working with Charles Piatau, of whom McCloskey shakes his head in wonderment.
“The guy is a joke, he’s definitely the best player I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s that good. I couldn’t actually tell you how good he is. He is brilliant. Guys are scared of him. You look at him and you’re like ‘this guy could step me, bounce me, come around me, chip it over me, what am I going to do?’ You just stand there and hope for the best!”
McCloskey desperately wants to add to his one cap and he’s also never played in the Aviva Stadium. This weekend’s interpro derbies constitute trials of sorts. With a six-day turnaround, Ulster have had a relatively light week. Rory Best has suggested their preparation will be as much mental as anything else, and McCloskey doesn’t see that being an issue.
“It doesn’t take too much to get up for playing Leinster at home. A packed Saturday. Hopefully the weather is good. Yea, take it to them.”
That said, he also realises the scale of the challenge.
“In my opinion they’re probably the best team in the competition, and I’d say it’s their Pro14 to lose but at home we’re tough to beat.”
As ever, he’ll have sourced tickets for his parents, his girlfriend and her parents, and maybe another mate or two.
“The boys are always laughing at me because I’m the worst one for going around getting tickets off people. I befriend all the foreigners because they don’t have as much family here, so I take all their tickets.”
He credits his long-time housemates Dave Shanahan and Peter Nelson with keeping is spirits up through low times or injuries, the camaraderie of the three being a significant factor in his career. McCloskey highlighted this in his presentation last week to the Ulster squad.
“We lived together for 2½ years, and I broke it up – I moved in with my missus,” he says, laughing. He and Hannah have bought and moved into a house not far from the Kingspan in East Belfast, and also have a dog, a chow chow by the name of Binx, named after a character in Star Wars called Jar Jar Binks.
“She’s got a thick coat. She’s about 25 kilos to be fair to her, she’s 16 months now,” says McCloskey as he proudly shows a video of his dark-coated, furry and sturdy pet, proudly sitting in the passenger seat of the car with Hannah in the back seat.
“If I walk Binx an hour every day, that wrecks her, she’s absolutely finished after that. Bu you have to brush her for about 15 minutes every night. I’m the only one that does that. Hanna won’t do it. To be fair she probably takes her on more walks than I do.”