McCloskey: ‘It is a new goal for us – we’ll try our best to win it’

WHILE LAST WEEK’S game against Harlequins proved something of a damp squib in terms of a contest for Ulster, this week they will be given a much sterner test on their return to England.

Six days on from their 57-21 mauling of Quins, this time the foes are Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup and, based on the names on the respective team sheets, this one should provide a bigger challenge.

Back in the Saints line-up come Tommy Freeman, Piers Francis, Dan Biggar, Paul Hill, David Ribbans and Lewis Ludlam. This time last week Ulster had become clear favourites. Because of the aforementioned names, this time it is not so clear cut.

But while tonight will be a test for Ulster, there is still that little bit of excitement missing given this isn’t a Challenge Cup game. That’s not lost on the players either, although Stuart McCloskey was among those championing the benefits of the Challenge Cup.

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“It’s obviously not the trophy we wanted to win at the start of the year but we sort of took stock after the whole European season got cut short, and we said we could use this to move on and use it to progress,” insists the Ireland centre.

“It’s a new goal for us and we’ll be trying our best to win it.”

Their application is not in doubt, and there is a confidence within the camp that winning the tournament is an achievable goal, but it’s not an arrogance, as McCloskey exhibits when batting away suggestions they are favourites. Still, the northern province are bullish about their prospects.

“We’re playing pretty good rugby. We were good in the league this year, we just came up short against Leinster a couple of times. We probably should have beaten Toulouse at home, we probably should have beaten Gloucester away. We’ve been close in a lot of games,” adds the Ireland centre.

McCloskey dejected after Toulouse loss. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’ve got talent throughout the squad and we’ve been playing pretty well recently, so that gives us a lot of belief. A lot of teams still in this competition are good teams as well but we feel like we have the edge.”

Given the relative strength of the teams, and the fact that Ulster wouldn’t have to overcome the likes of Leinster, Exeter Chiefs or Racing 92 to win the title, it’s a fair question to ask whether winning the Challenge Cup would signal progression for Ulster.

It is what they’ve been driving towards for some time now under Dan McFarland: some kind of tangible evidence that all they’ve been doing over the past few years has been taking them in the right direction. Adding a first trophy to the cabinet at Kingspan Stadium would be a good indicator.

Then again, it was envisaged that the trophy would come emblazoned with either Pro14 or Champions Cup on it, not Challenge Cup. But McCloskey is unequivocal in how Ulster see this competition: one that they can use to their benefit in years to come.

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” opines the centre. “This year in the league we were fairly good. Leinster won the league, and fair play to them they were the best team, but behind that I think it’s a toss-up between us and Munster for second best team. It’s a close one.

“In Europe this year, we were disappointed with that result against Toulouse at home because it really put us on the back foot, and then we threw away one against Gloucester away.

Ian Madigan dejected after Toulouse loss. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’re moving in the right direction. We’d love to have won both of those games and be playing in the Champions Cup, but we’re hopefully using this now as a bit of a springboard to get a bit of momentum and go and win this, and that’s our goal.

“Obviously it would be good to get that monkey off our back and win something, it would be brilliant to get some silverware, but we haven’t talked about it in terms of progressing as a team. I think we’ve just taken it week by week and trying to win each game as it comes, and then winning the competition as a whole.”

Northampton Saints