Ireland excited by 'full package' centre Stuart McCloskey

Ireland excited by 'full package' centre Stuart McCloskey

Stuart McCloskey was mistaken for a second row when he first pitched up at Ulster training as an unknown 20-year-old.

Fast forward just three years and Ulster’s top stars insist it would be no error to hand the wrecking-ball centre his Test debut in the RBS 6 Nations.

As a young teenager obsessed with first soccer then golf, Ulster’s latest big hitter was once shunted into scrum-half to offset his slight frame.

Now though, the 6ft 3ins, 17stone McCloskey’s “freakish” size and “full package” skills have had team-mate Luke Marshall purring, and Ireland boss Joe Schmidt paying serious heed.

“When we first saw him at Ulster a few people assumed he was a second row,” Marshall said of McCloskey.

“He’s far bigger than any other centre at Ulster. I think he’s probably got about 15 kilos on any other centre. And in Ireland, let alone Ulster, that’s freakish – we just don’t make centres that big.

“So when we realised he was a centre there was initially a bit of surprise. But he quickly showed what he’s all about and how damaging he can be. Yes he’s got the size, but he’s also got the skills to back that up.

“He’s got good hands, he’s quick and can kick too. I’d say he’s got the full package. We all knew if he got the exposure that he could definitely make a big impact. And it’s not hard to see why he’s pushing for the international call now.”

Ireland will chase history through a third consecutive Six Nations crown, but arrive at the tournament still harbouring World Cup frustrations.

The 43-20 quarter-final defeat to Argentina denied Joe Schmidt’s men that elusive first World Cup last-four berth, Ireland struggling to reproduce their stellar form of the previous two years.

Now Ulster hooker Rory Best has taken the captaincy duties from Paul O’Connell, and Ireland must find a way to cope without the talismanic lock.

O’Connell’s Test retirement has been exacerbated by Iain Henderson’s hamstring injury, with Ireland forced to patch up their side in several areas.

Linchpin fly-half Johnny Sexton should be fit to start the tournament after his latest concussion scare, the Leinster star again vital to his side’s chances.

Ireland struggled for midfield fluency in Sexton’s absence against Argentina at the World Cup, Schmidt’s men failing to adapt their approach suitably to get the best out of stand-in Ian Madigan.

But couple McCloskey’s rapid emergence with the return to fitness of Connacht battering-ram Robbie Henshaw and suddenly head coach Schmidt has a few extra midfield tricks.

McCloskey and Marshall have forged a formidable centre pairing at Ulster this year, with the latter shifting into the unfamiliar territory of 13.

Injuries to Jared Payne, Stuart Olding and Darren Cave may have forced Ulster’s hand, but Marshall has not looked back.

The 24-year-old now offers Ireland another credible outside centre option, which in turn could also boost competition at full-back.

While the fit-again Payne has long proved Schmidt’s first-choice outside centre, the 30-year-old is equally comfortable at full-back.

Henshaw himself has plenty of experience at 15, so all of a sudden Ireland boast tangible alternatives to stalwart full-back Rob Kearney.

If Schmidt wants to mix things up, Marshall is ready.

“Versatility definitely helps your chances of selection with Ireland,” said Marshall. “In the past I would have been viewed as predominantly a 12, so the fact that I’ve featured at 13 for Ulster in quite a few high-profile games, hopefully that can stand me in good stead going forward.

“I do think Joe likes guys who can cover off a few positions, especially for bench slots as well, it makes perfect sense when working out the balance of a squad.

“I’ve definitely enjoyed playing 13 and I feel I’ve struck up a good partnership with Stu (McCloskey).

“The challenge then is to keep that going, just keep trying to play well in every scenario that comes your way. Hopefully by doing that you can put the right kind of pressure on the coaches.”

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