A string of eye catching performances saw 21 year old centre Stuart McCloskey break into the Ulster senior team and he topped of his break through season by being named Academy Player of the Season.
“I was as surprised as anybody to get that and as you could tell from my speech I was a bit shell-shocked.” smiled McCloskey.
“But it was well done by Andy Warwick and Rory Scholes as well for getting nominated my tip was Warwick but luckily enough I got it.”
McCloskey is set to start in Ulster’s final regular league game of the season at Thomond Park on Saturday and he is hoping to face some legends of Irish rugby.
“Everybody who’s involved this week we’re all going out there to win.
“It’s just exciting to play against some of the Munster guys as I’ve only really ever seen them on TV really.
“I’ve been watching Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan since I was 13 so it’s exciting to get out there and play against them.
“I have played at Thomond before in an AIL game for Dungannon but there was no-one there and there were echoes all around the place.”
McCloskey is looking forward to clashing with James Downey in midfield and putting his hand up for selection in next week’s semi final.
“It’s not like for like but he’s someone quite similar that I would base my game, so I’ll want to put myself against him and see how I get on.”
“Mark hasn’t spoken to us directly but I would assume that everyone is going out there to try and keep their place.”“We know that’s not going to be the case for everyone but you still want to put in a very good performance so that you might like to think you’re in with a shout to keep the place for the semi-final.”
Munster go into the final weekend in third a point behind Glasgow and still in with a shout of a home semi final but with the Scots welcoming Zebre it’s unlikely.
“Glasgow will more than likely beat Zebre, Munster be going out to win and maybe get that second spot.”
“I wouldn’t say there’s no pressure but it’s definitely not the same as having to go down there to get a win and you want to put down a marker for next season as well as for the semi-final.”
In a rejigged backline McCloskey will start in midfield with Michael Allen.
Playing for the Ravens has prepared McCloskey for the step up to senior rugby and he is happy to take advice from the experience players.
“Some of the games are very similar at points to PRO12. They’re just as fast but there not just as consistent at the higher level of PRO12 but they’re very good to come up to this level.”
“They have gave me bits and pieces they’ve just left me to out largely, they give me the occasional word in the ear like different types of running line.
McCloskey has also tapped into the knowledge of Neil Doak and Jonny Bell.
“Their influence has been massive.,I’m scared of Doakie half the time, Dinger’s been great defensively and that has helped me push on.”
McCloskey feels at home in the Pro12.
“The main thing is that I can cut it at this level. I felt totally comfortable out there and don’t really feel in awe of the players out there which I would have couple of years ago.”
“Now I feel I can slot in at that level and I feel that they can put me in there and that’s the main thing.”
“If you’d had a good game I’d just want to see how many tackles I made. You know how many breaks you made but you don’t really think about how many tackles you made throughout the whole game.”
McCloskey is juggling his rugby career with his degree at Queen’s University and from next season he’ll be putting more emphasis on his rugby.
“That’s the hardest part, I’m studying economics and accounting, it’s not too bad when you’re just doing Academy stuff but when you’re with the seniors it’s basically full-time.”
“I’m going to go part-time next year with the degree.”
“We know that’s not going to be the case for everyone but you still want to put in a very good performance so that you might like to think you’re in with a shout to keep the place for the semi-final.”