Sunday 17 December 2017

Unlikely lad Stuart McCloskey on his rise to the top, consistency and being the perfect weight

Ireland's Stuart McCloskey is tackled by England's Dylan Hartley during their Six Nations clash at Twickenham
Ireland's Stuart McCloskey is tackled by England's Dylan Hartley during their Six Nations clash at Twickenham
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Stuart McCloskey is the new normal in international rugby, it's just that we in Ireland are catching up.

The Bangor Bulldozer is a 6ft 4ins centre who weighs 17st 3lbs with a penchant for offloading, the prototype modern centre who looked pretty comfortable against England last Saturday.

McCloskey appears nonplussed at the idea that he's particularly big for a centre, while he reckons his rate of 1.4 offloads a game for Ulster is on the conservative side of things.

You might expect that a month or so under the tutelage of Joe Schmidt might have discouraged the 23-year-old from passing out of contact, but at Twickenham he still managed two - both of which went to hand even if they were a little loose.

It might be argued that Ireland left it too long to let their new weapon have a run, but when they did he made hard yards in the opening minutes of the second half.

Whether it is enough for him to retain his place given Jared Payne's return to fitness remains to be seen, but he can reflect on a decent first outing in green.

Stuart McCloskey (SPORTSFILE)
Stuart McCloskey (SPORTSFILE)

"It's just play your natural game," he said of the message from the coach.

"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.

"It's all about winning that collision point first and then having a look and, if it's not there, you can maybe bring the ball back in.

"If you don't win the collision first, then there's no point in offloading it because you're just putting crap on to someone else really."

As for his size, he just shrugs at the suggestion that he's an unusual case.

"Mum and dad are both 5ft 11ins," he said. "So I suppose my mum is tall. No, I think it's just with the frame, being 6ft 4ins, 110kg is not overly heavy if you know what I mean.

"I wouldn't see it as overly heavy. It's heavy for a centre but if you saw a 6ft 4ins back-rower you'd be like, 'That's probably the right size'. So if I can keep my speed up I don't see why not to put on more weight really, as long as it's good weight."

It might be hard to believe, but McCloskey started his rugby life as a scrum-half at Bangor Grammar where his first love was golf.

Ulster's Stuart McCloskey about to be tackled by Glenn Bryce
Ulster's Stuart McCloskey about to be tackled by Glenn Bryce

A growth spurt saw him move out the backline, arriving at inside centre via out-half and his promise wasn't picked up by the talent scouts when he left school.

So, he headed for Queen's University and began a degree in Structural Engineering with Architecture, lining out for Dungannon on weekends.

As he began to make waves at club level, the idea of becoming a professional began to take hold and the degree was put on the long finger.

"I came out of school and played with Dungannon for a year and sort of got picked up at the end of that year," he recalled.

"I was 20 when I went into the sub-academy, then did a year's sub-academy and did a year academy, a year Development (contract) and then senior.

"So it's been pretty fluent once I got in there; it just took me a while to get into the whole set-up.

"It probably grew on me more in that first year out of school, when I was playing well with Dungannon and people were sort of talking of me going into the academy and stuff like that there, but I don't think I ever dreamed of playing for Ireland four years later, so it's gone really well.

"This season, I got a good start and I think then it was about consistently getting game time. I was going well last season but then injured my elbow and was out for 12 weeks, and then got banned for another four weeks.

"So I think just consistency of playing and not getting injured has allowed me get the games."

Last Saturday, he got a taste for the biggest stage and, while there are creases to be ironed out, he wants another taste of the international action.

"I was as comfortable as anyone can feel going out in front of 82,000 people for your first cap," he smiled.

"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."

In a weekend of firsts, he gave a rendition of Robbie Williams' 'Angels' to mark his first cap and then endured the first Schmidt review of his career as a capped international.

All of it will steel him for the challenges to come. McCloskey looks built to play at this level.

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