Saturday 23 February 2019

McCloskey eager to make up for lost time by reaching first quarter-final

Ulster's Stuart McCloskey. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ulster's Stuart McCloskey. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Stuart McCloskey has enjoyed some big European nights and contributed at pivotal moments, yet the 'Bangor Bulldozer' has yet to experience knock-out rugby in the Champions Cup.

That's what's on offer for Ulster today as they go to Welford Road with a chance of reaching the last eight for the first time since 2014.

Much has changed since Saracens ended their best hope of a second title at Ravenhill on the night Jared Payne saw red; captain Rory Best is the sole survivor from the team that started that day, while Iain Henderson and Rob Herring came off the bench.

Four wins out of five games have set them up for a return to that stage but they still need to finish the job today.

And McCloskey reckons this generation of players are ready to take the next step.

Amazing

"It would be amazing," he said. "I've never got to the quarter-finals of Europe and that's in four or five years so it's something that we're really aiming for and we know we've put ourselves in the position to get there and it's about executing this week and hopefully going out and putting our best foot forward."

Henderson's return to the starting team is a significant boost to Dan McFarland's side who impressed against Racing 92 and also to Joe Schmidt who named the powerful second-row in his Ireland squad this week.

Geordan Murphy includes a couple of England panel members including George Ford, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May and Dan Cole, as the struggling Leicester Tigers look to sign off on a disappointing European campaign on something of a high.

Certainly, McCloskey is expecting a performance from their hosts.

"I know if that was us we'd be going out there and trying a few things and it could go either way," he said.

"Sometimes you can go out and everything will go for you or it might not but we've just got to take our game-plan in and what we're preparing for and what we think we'll do so we've just got to worry about ourselves.

"Hopefully we'll be able to go there and quieten it with a big start and keep that performance up. We started well in our last game and that carried us through even when we had a wee bad spell so hopefully we can do the same this weekend."

Few would have predicted that Ulster would be in this position so soon into McFarland's reign, but now that they have earned the opportunity the onus is on them to take it.

If they can replicate last week's intensity from the opening whistle, they have enough weapons in their armoury to get the points they need.

Verdict: Ulster

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport