Upbeat on new season ahead: Stuart McCloskey looks ahead to the Ulster campaign
It was generally one to forget for Ulster on and off the pitch Â last season, but the strong finish to the Guinness PRO14 season is something Stuart McCloskey believes they can build on as they look ahead to a new campaign.
Although Ulster failed to make the knockout stages in Europe and also the Championship play-off series in the PRO14, they did produce a good run of victories at the end of the term on the domestic front which culminated in a deserved Champions Cup play-off victory over Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium.
That home form will be put to the test early into the new PRO14 campaign when they meet Scarelts and Edinburgh in Belfast on September 1 and 7 respectively.
McCloskey, although only 26, is fast becoming one of the elder statesmen in the dressing room on caps and experience and he believes the side can hit the ground running.
Ulster have been having a number of away day training sessions around the Province. They were in Coleraine on Tuesday and today the Ulster Rugby coach rolls up at the grounds of Letterkenny RFC.
“Pre-season has been going well and while the main buzz at the minute may be trying to through pre-season - which can be tough - everyone is looking forward to really get going again,” said McCloskey.
“Certainly the way we finished in those last six games last season build confidence and although there are new faces around and others have departed, it is still something we can take forward with us into the new season.”
Ulster had close to their full squad in Coleriane on Tuesday and went through a full-on training session, including contact, and certainly the opinion from those watching was the squad is looking in good shape.
Luke Marshall and Louis Ludik remain on the injury bench and are not expected back until possibly October/November, but with outhalf Billy Burns and utility back Will Addison signing this summer this is certainly a plethora of talent still available in the backline.
Jordi Murphy’s arrival from Leinster and Marty Moore from Wasps is a boost to the pack as well as seeing Marcel Coetzee fully involved in training as he looks to put behind two horrendous years of injury.
There may still be a spot in the squad for another overseas player, but the only other part of the jigsaw missing is the arrival of new head coach, Dan McFarland.
It is understood the Scottish Rugby Union - McFarland is still contracted with them as assistant coach until January 2019 - are refusing to budge on their stance on not releasing the former Glasgow and Connacht assistant coach early even though they have recently appointed Danny Wilson as another assistant coach.
While that stalemate between the SRU and Irish Rugby Football Union goes on, Simon Easterby has come in to head up the coaching team at Ulster.
It is a situation which, while looking in may not be ideal, but the response from those involved has been positive and McCloskey was among those.
“Simon (Easterby) has not been your stereotypical director of rugby coming in, seems like more a soundboard coach that you can bounce things off.
“He has such a wealth of experience with Scarlets and Ireland. He is happy to take more of a back seat and we are hoping Dan (McFarland) comes sooner rather than later and he does not want to take too much on,” he said.
Having done some coaching last season, Jared Payne has now been officially put in place and McCloskey feels it is a role which he has fitted into well.
“Jared has been great, he is really starting to get his defensive schemes going and everyone starting to get to know them,” explained McCloskey.
“He was trying to get them through the last seven games last season and he saw bits of it coming through with the results in those few games but hopefully over this summer it will have time to embed and we will come out flying with it in the new season.”