Stuart McCloskey, the man they could no longer ignore
It looked as if it would never happen for the big man.
The answer you would often be met with when you bemoaned the lack of Test minutes for Stuart McCloskey would be one of the following names:
- Garry Ringrose
- Robbie Henshaw
- Bundee Aki
- Jared Payne
- James Hume
With each one, the person would have a fine point. Most of the time you could reply with a 'yeah, but... '. The truth was, McCloskey is an excellent, consistent player but your case would never be a slam dunk.
There was always an overriding sense, though, that he never got a fair crack of it. The 30-year-old recently wrapped his 10th season as a rugby pro and he is already back in preparations for his 11th, over at the IRFU's High Performance Centre. Here are the Ireland caps he won, each season: 0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 1, 0, 2, 0, 6.
It was looking far too binary, for far too long.
Joe Schmidt had him in for a couple of looks but never seemed convinced. Andy Farrell left him to it in his first season but took him in for a look at the end of 2020/21 when Henshaw and Aki were off on the Lions Tour.
He played two games, against the USA and Japan, scored two tries and did not get a Test minute the following season. With James Hume the centre du jour, heading to New Zealand in 2022, it looked like it would be six and out for Ulsterman.
In September of that year, McCloskey raved about Farrell, as a coach and man, while telling The Rugby Pod, "I should be the guy that hates him the most, really, if you're thinking of players. I don't get picked that much, even though I'm in squads I don't get playing. But I actually don't. I have total respect for him."
Stuart McCloskey and his World Cup chances
And then, five months later, Stuart McCloskey was starting all three November Tests and showing everyone he was made for this stage.
It took injuries and suspensions to clear a runway for him. Robbie Henshaw was out until 2023 and Bundee Aki was still on the bold step after his transgressions against Stormers. James Hume had scored on his (October) comeback against Munster but was not deemed ready to pitch against the Springboks and Wallabies. Jamie Osborne had impressed with Leinster and was called into the squad, only to pick up a significant knock.
So often the tackle pad holder or the guy asked to rep the opposition centres, in training, McCloskey was given a start against South Africa, with Garry Ringrose outside him. He started off excellently but only lasted 26 minutes and looked to have picked up a bad arm injury. Whatever the issue was, 'Big Stu' was back for the visit of Fiji to Dublin. When Aki was back, a week later, he started 13 as McCloskey got another run-out.
He was off and running. All the promise he had shown in an Ulster jersey, and all the fans that thought he was capable at Test level, it all started coming together. The 'I told you so' brigade were telling everyone so, and it was hard to disagree.
Back at Ulster, McCloskey exudes big dog energy. He would remind you on those brilliant All Blacks or Pacific Island players that often consider a strong tackle like an inconvenient gnat. He takes the hit while still surveying the scene, and finds his pass regardless.
His passing, work-rate, support lines, hard carrying and defensive awareness have all been impressive, this past season. If there was an area he needs to look at it would be getting over the whitewash more often [his two tries in 2022/23 are his lowest return in six seasons].Farrell and Dan McFarland will love that extra effort he is putting in, around the park, but you need to identify yourself as a try-scoring threat to suck in the defenders.
The Six Nations rolled back around and he started the first three games, with Ireland winning each time [the only time he has lost in a green jersey was on his Test debut in February 2016]. It all looked to be going well until Ireland struggled to put Italy away, in Rome.
During that game, Bundee Aki was great in attack but made a couple of big errors, playing at outside centre, in defence. The man himself was crestfallen after the final whistle, despite Ireland's win. With Henshaw back fit, speculation in certain quarters was that Aki could miss out on the Scotland game. As it was, Aki started with Ringrose and Henshaw was on the bench. McCloskey missed out entirely, on that and the Grand Slam-clincher against England, and Farrell said he was 'unbelievably unlucky'.
The last chance to impress the Ireland coach, after leaving camp, is the season run-in. Leinster knocked them out of the Champions Cup at the Last 16 stage so the URC provided that ultimate shop window. As it turned out, Connacht (semis) and Munster (winner) lads were longer on display. That, in part, led to just six Ulster players making Ireland's 42-man World Cup training squad.
Stuart McCloskey is there, and he should survive the cull from 42 to 33 when Andy Farrell confirms his squad, in August.
Being that specialised inside centre [he has never started in another position] could go against him, especially with versatile players like O'Brien and Osborne around, but McCloskey has proven impossible to ignore any longer. Ringrose and Henshaw, fine players as they are, take a lot of knocks.
McCloskey had to wait until he was a month shy of his 29th birthday to start two Test matches consecutively. Last season, he started six on the spin for Ireland and they won each time.
There are battles ahead, ones against lads gunning for those final squad spots and that will take place away from the TV cameras. They do not come much more battle hardened than this lad.
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