"If McCloskey's gonna be in the mix, he's gotta be in the mix now"
2019 broke a streak that Stuart McCloskey would not have wanted anyway. He will be hoping 2020 can bring about a much more positive one.
2016, 2017 and 2018 all brought Stuart McCloskey one Ireland Test cap. When the Ulster centre made his Ireland debut in February 2016, he would have been hoping for more than a cap a year, but 2019 was completely barren. Age 27 and with just three Test appearances to his name, it doesn't sit well.
Despite his steady form for Ulster, McCloskey was deemed surplus to Joe Schmidt's requirements. Despite featuring under Schmidt against England, Fiji and the USA, 'The Bangor Bulldozer' did not even make his initial 44-man squad ahead of the World Cup. He was back at Kingspan Stadium and preparing for the new season when Schmidt made his final snips and sent Ulster teammates Will Addison, Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy back up the M1.
McCloskey, like many of his Ulster colleagues, has put his head down and focused on making this team tough to beat and hard to stop. While John Cooney is, quite rightly, getting the plaudits, the likes of McCloskey, Marty Moore, Luke Marshall, Sean Reidy and more have helped Ulster to 11 wins this season and pushed them to the brink of the Champions Cup quarter finals.
On the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby [from 45:00 below], Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery discussed the form of several Ulster players and debated whether it was enough to break into the Ireland team.
While Jerry Flannery believes Cooney is having an outstanding season, on the back of an excellent 2018/19, he still feels Ireland would do well with Conor Murray starting and the Ulster No.9 as his back up.
Trimble declares Cooney is 'probably been the best 9 in Europe this year' who is consistently delivering and 'living up to the expectation'.
"He's been on fire. He's probably been the best 9 in Europe this year. And week in, week out, he keeps doing it."
High praise for @JCooney09 after yet another big weekend 🙌
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The case for McCloskey to start in the Ireland midfield is not so clear, mainly because there is so much competition in that particular area.
"I don't know," Flannery admitted. "I think he is playing incredibly well.
"If he's gonna be in the mix he's gotta be in the mix now, because his game is rounded and he's playing phenomenally well. I just, I think it's the one place where you've got Garry Ringrose, you've got Bundee Aki, when you've got Robbie Henshaw, when you've got Chris Farrell. There's absolute quality there." The conversation continued:
MURPHY: That Leinster team, when you're Andy Farrell and you're looking at a team that has a habit of absolute hockeying teams now, and playing with such cohesion and such confidence, how do you look beyond them at the moment?
TRIMBLE: If it comes to a 50/50, you go, 'That guy who's in an environment [Leinster] where he hasn't lost a game this year'.
MURPHY: And it's tough to pick a 12 on the bench, as well, so he does find himself in a very awkward position.
FLANNERY: He's in camp and you see how he goes in training with his peers, and you go from there, because he's playing phenomenally well. Just when we... looking at him playing this year, and watching him so closely, like he's kicking off his left, kicking off his right, he's offloading, he's throwing long passes, short passes, he's carrying. He's taking the ball right to the line and distributing, like the pass he gave to Matty Rea [for his try].
Perhaps the biggest impediment for McCloskey is, as Barry Murphy points out, his lack of versatility. He is an out-and-out No.12 and that went against him with Schmidt. Andy Farrell may take a different view, but it is where the likes of Ringrose, Aki, Henshaw and Farrell hold edges.
Like Cooney, though, all McCloskey can do is continue to put in the big performances - with Clermont (away) and Bath (home) coming up - and hope that Farrell rewards form.
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Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble are joined in the House of Rugby studio by Jerry Flannery as they look back on all the Guinness PRO14 action, preview some big Champions Cup games and look ahead to the Six Nations.