Art of the possible
Stuart McCloskey has flown in under the radar and could be about to land in a green jersey
Club players with designs on bigger things should tune into this afternoon's Champions Cup clash in Stade Ernest Wallon. Loyalty to Ulster or interest in their European campaign is not a prerequisite. Keeping a watch on their centre Stuart McCloskey, however, would be a reminder of the art of the possible.
McCloskey is certainly warm if not exactly hot property at the minute. In a world of big inside centres who thrive on strength and power, he's a big inside centre with a bit more than strength and power. He has made the 12 jersey his own at Kingspan, and when Joe Schmidt names a training squad for a one-day session in early January, expect McCloskey's name to be read out. If it wasn't for the AIL you wouldn't have heard of him.
A Bangor boy who came through that town's grammar school without troubling anyone on the Ulster Schools scouting system, McCloskey moved to Dungannon, who back then were plying their trade in Division 1B of the AIL. Former Ulster scrumhalf Kieran Campbell was the coach there; he inveigled Allen Clarke to pop down from Ravenhill to check out this new talent; and the then Academy boss Clarke liked what he saw.
"I suppose it was in the back of my mind to get picked up by Ulster but it wasn't really in the forefront of my mind," McCloskey says. "Going to uni and then play there, but as the year went on Kieran was saying to me: 'You could get picked up.' It became more achievable. Then it happened and it was all good from there. It wasn't, 'I want to prove that I'm better than these guys.' I just wanted to play rugby and I wanted to play it well and wherever that took me, I was happy enough.
"Then it was pretty quick from there. The Sub Academy for half a year; then the Academy; then a development contact; then senior last year. It was quick enough once I got there. Just getting there in the first place was the struggle."
Well, not that much of a struggle. It wasn't as if he had spent every waking hour dreaming of running out at Ravenhill or Lansdowne Road. His school holidays in Bangor were spent hitting golf balls in the local Clandeboye club.
"Ah 100 per cent, used to spend six or seven hours a day in the golf club during the summer. That's what I did - went to the golf club all day. Mum and dad picked me up later on and dropped me home. Clandeboye, two courses, lovely so it is. Played off four, pushed three for a bit. Mum's off eight; dad eight or nine; brother's off six. It's just what we did: golf holidays in Portugal. Dad played a bit of rugby at Ards, on the seconds back when Ards were quite good. Mum played hockey. Just sporty people."
In school time the diet was split between rugby and cricket. As he went on he got better at the former, but not obsessively so. So he wasn't devastated at finishing second level without being picked up on the Ulster schools radar. Did no one knock on his door at all?
"Not really. I was quite small. I was really small. I was 5' 9" in fifth year; played 10 in lower sixth then last year in school I would have played a wee bit at 12. The stretch came in that final year at school, going into my first year at uni. I was just a beanpole. My brother plays now for Bangor and he's still a beanpole, so he is."
There is something in the way he describes his transition that reminds you of team-mate Iain Henderson. Ireland's most punishing ball carrier drifted along a not-dissimilar path to McCloskey, and would never be accused of being over anxious. About anything. And the rigours of a professional rugby routine were not easy to come to terms with. McCloskey has followed the same path.
"I'd like to say I slipped in straight away but the six o'clock starts were a shock to the system," he says. "It took me a couple of weeks to settle in. I was a bit of a zombie in the mornings. I still am. I remember I didn't have a car (initially) so I had to walk about a mile to go get a lift off one of the other guys. I'd be leaving Stranmillis and I'd see a few students coming back from nights out, while I was walking down to get a lift to training - always interesting to see what was coming back in the morning.
"As a 19/20-year-old, you always want to be going out but you've got to look at the bigger picture. When you have a chance to play professional rugby, you've got to take it."
He's a model for that. McCloskey made his senior debut almost two years ago and last season was shaping up as a breakthrough campaign for him until the combination of injury and suspension - 11 weeks to elbow surgery and four weeks for a tip tackle - put a hole in things. Not so much that it stopped him spending a few weeks in summer with Emerging Ireland, for the second year running, as well as working out with the Ireland squad who played the Barbarians at the end of the season.
This term he set a pretty high standard in the opening Pro12 game, with a man of the match performance against the Ospreys. His wrecking-ball try was the highlight of a performance that included three successful shots on goal, and since then he has started nine of the 10 games he's been involved in. Last weekend was his European debut. Against Toulouse.
"The only time I started to get a wee bit nervous was in the tunnel, a lot of big forwards about here! I suppose our game plan was to move them about the pitch and I think it worked. If we can do the same in Toulouse, I know we won't get the same scoreline but hopefully we can grind out a win. I was happy to lope past a prop and a lock for the bonus-point try. I just remember seeing a prop and a second-row. I'm not the fastest in the world but I think I can go around them."
If Toulouse didn't know, or care, about McCloskey going to Belfast, they do now. Ulster have a history of wiping out big names at home and then suffering the same fate in the return fixture: in 2003 they beat Leicester 33-0 in the first leg of the back-to-backs, and were obliterated 49-7 the following week in Welford Road. More recently, in 2006 and against today's opposition, they hurried France's most illustrious club out the gate on a 30-3 scoreline and then lost 28-13 in the rematch. He was a nipper when all that was going on.
"I'm not even that familiar with it so haven't really thought about it," he says. "We're definitely going there thinking we have to win this game and thinking we can win this game. We've just beaten them 38-0 here and we have momentum on our side. I know there's going to be a backlash when we get there but if we can withstand that backlash at the start and stick with it, we'll hopefully get them towards the end." If that comes to pass then he will edge closer still to the next level. His exposure to Schmidt has been pretty limited so far, but McCloskey is hopeful of that changing in the near future.
"Yeah, it would be brilliant. I think I've been playing well so hopefully I'm in his thoughts. He spoke to nine or 10 of us about three or four weeks ago. Just gave me a couple of work-ons. I was happy to get his thoughts. Obviously ball-carrying is a strength of mine, so just when to give the offload and when not to, which I think I've been pretty good at this season. I don't think I've thrown too many offloads to deck. And obviously just to work on my passing and my kicking, just general stuff.
"I think I've showed that I can distribute - in the Edinburgh game I had a few nice passes and then a couple out the back against Toulouse. Well, I thought they were nice, anyway. Just my all-round game. I don't see there being a glaring weakness in my game. He might, but he hasn't told me!"
Schmidt will be watching, like the rest of us, this afternoon. And that audience will include the foot soldiers of the AIL. In this Academy-driven society it's good to know there is more than one launching pad to the stars. McCloskey could be one of its brightest.
Sunday Indo Sport