Stuart McCloskey craves silverware this season with Ulster

Stuart McCloskey has spent the best part of nine years in the Ulster midfield trying to bring silverware back to the Kingspan Stadium.

McCloskey is one of a generation of Ulster players that has never had the chance to put a winner’s medal around his neck since making his debut in the 2013/14 season.

The powerful centre is closing in on 150 appearances in the white shirt and after wins at the RDS, Franklin Gardens and away in Clermont already this season, there is a real belief that Ulster can end their 16-year trophy drought as Dan McFarland’s side challenge for honours in Europe and domestically.

“We got to a final two year, a final against Leinster and lost,” he said.

GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Stuart McCloskey of Ulster charges upfield during the Heineken Champions Cup Pool 2 match at Kingsholm Stadium on December 19, 2020 in Gloucester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“We’re close. That year when we got to the semi-final and lost away to Glasgow on that innocuous decision with Matawalu, that was a pretty good team, so yeah it’s definitely up there as one of the best teams I’ve been involved in in the last 10 years.

“I think we’re just trying to get to the quarter-finals and semi-finals first and then work form there.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty good spot and if we get a home draw we’ll be pretty tough to beat. It will be tough for anybody to beat us.”

With the talent that has been assembled during his time at the club McCloskey struggles to explain why Ulster have failed to trouble the trophy engravers since 2006.

“I can’t really put a finger on it but squad depth is probably better than it’s ever been,” he said.

“That’s one thing. When it comes to the end of the year and guys have been injured we’ve maybe dropped off in years gone by, but I think at the minute when somebody drops out the next person up has put in really great performances, and that really helps towards the end of the year when guys get injured.”

Close to his 30th birthday, McCloskey hasn’t given up hope of adding to his six Ireland caps and playing in next year’s world cup in France.

“I’m 29 now and signed for another three years so I’ll be 32 or 33 and I still think I have it in me to play a bit longer, but who knows,” he said.

“Personal goals? I’d like to get back in there for the next World Cup and obviously try to get as many caps here. I know 150 is coming up and touch wood I’ll push on and get as many as I can and that’s always a personal goal for me.”

Ulster face Cardiff at home in the United Rugby Championship on Friday night. McCloskey is reunited in the centre with James Hume fresh from his appearance off the bench for Ireland against Italy.

Stewart Moore gets a rare start at full back.

Captain Iain Henderson has recovered from his bout of Covid that ruled him out of the Six Nations last weekend and is parented by Alan O’Connor in the engine room.

Jordi Murphy will make his first appearance of the season after recovering from injury. The British Lion is joined in the backrow by Marcus Rea and Nick Timoney.

Scrum-half John Cooney and hooker Tom Stewart have both recovered from injury to take their place on the replacements bench.

Ulster team to play Cardiff Rugby (7.35pm kick-off) live on BBC Northern Ireland, Premier Sports, and RTÉ 2: (15-9) Stewart Moore Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ben Moxham, Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; (1-8) Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Jordi Murphy, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Jack McGrath, Gareth Milasinovich, Sam Carter, Duane Vermeulen, John Cooney, Ian Madigan, Aaron Sexton.

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