On his second consecutive start for Ireland – a first in his own international career – against the USA in the Vodafone Summer Series tonight, Stuart McCloskey will be a part of a back-line with a strong Ulster influence.
Alongside him in the Irish midfield will be James Hume, making his senior international bow following an outstanding season with the Ulstermen. On the right side of the back-three, the pacy Robert Baloucoune is also given a chance to impress.
Despite having just five caps under his belt, McCloskey made his senior debut for Ireland against England back in February 2016.
Excited to see how his provincial colleagues progress at this level, the Bangor native said: “It’s obviously great to see them in there to start. They’ve both had great years.
“Obviously Rob has been injured on and off, but when he’s played he’s been class. James has probably been one of Ulster’s most consistent performers.
“I think he was up for most of the Player of the Year awards. I know he didn’t win them, but he was in the top-three for what the coaches and the players thought. He has been great all year.
“James will bring that great footwork he has and he’s got a bit of power as well, and an underrated passing game.
“Hopefully he shows all of that at the weekend and obviously Rob has got the pace to burn. If we get him out on the wing in a bit of space, hopefully we’ll see a few tries.”
A veteran of 140 senior matches, the 28-year-old McCloskey is now one of the leading lights in Dan McFarland’s Ulster side.
He credits the former Connacht prop with creating a culture at Kingspan Stadium that makes it possible for the likes of Hume and Baloucoune – as well as fellow Ireland debutants Tom O’Toole and Nick Timoney – to elevate to a higher level and has been more than happy to cultivate it in his own way as well.
I think there’s a lot of guys there at Ulster that have helped along the way. Hopefully they push on and get a lot more caps.
“It’s good to see the likes of James coming through and I’ve been playing with him, so it’s probably one that’s a wee bit more special for me.
“I’d love to see him go on and really progress for Ireland over the years and get a lot more caps. It’s probably testament to what Dan has done at Ulster as well. There’s a lot of young guys coming through.
“I know Mikey Lowry has been in the camp and he’s been doing really well, and hopefully he’ll get his first cap in the years to come as well. Hopefully we’re building something good there and it’ll come to pay over the next few years.”
Whereas Hume is his partner this week, it was a former Ulster player in Chris Farrell that joined forces with McCloskey in the centre for last Saturday’s hard-earned 39-31 win at home to Japan.
McCloskey admitted he is unlikely to change his own game just because the number 13 jersey has passed on to someone new on this occasion.
“They’re obviously slightly different players. I don’t think I’ll be changing the way I play at all really,” he insisted.
“Maybe at the start when James had one or two caps with Ulster, I probably tried to help him along a bit, but he’s had probably 40-odd games for Ulster now.
“He sort of knows what the professional game is. He leads a lot of the meetings, he’s quite a vocal guy. I really won’t be doing a lot different than I did last week.”
For the 7.15pm kick-off at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland will be facing a USA outfit that outscored England 26-17 in the second half of their clash at Twickenham last Sunday.
The Eagles ultimately lost out on a final scoreline of 43-29, but there was enough in their performance for McCloskey and his team-mates to be kept on high alert. He added:
The US have obviously got a lot of great athletes. I know defensively they’ll come pretty hard off the line at us and come to get us.
“We’re expecting that and there was 14 points in it in the end last week. Getting beaten by 14 points by England at home isn’t terrible by any stretch.
“We’re expecting a pretty good game from them and hopefully we can get off to a good start.”