Stuart McCloskey 'twice the player I was' says Ulster '99 hero Jan Cunningham

Jan Cunningham is held aloft after Ulster's European Cup semi-final win over Stade Francais in 1999
Jan Cunningham was part of Ulster's European Cup-winning side in 1999

Jan Cunningham can't help but laugh at the suggestion that he was the Stuart McCloskey of Ulster's 1999 European Cup winning team.

It is, to be fair, a lazy comparison between two products of Bangor Grammar School, both centres with fondness for finding contact when in possession.

It's exactly the type of comparison, based on one element of a player's game, that does a disservice to what McCloskey brings to the table.

"He's twice the player I was, and I'm not being modest," says Cunningham.

"I wouldn't fancy playing against him in the centre."

In fairness to Cunningham there aren't many people who would relish the opportunity of coming up against McCloskey on his current form.

The 27-year-old's team-mates will tell you that he is simply doing what he has done over the last few seasons, rather the difference is that he is in a side with the confidence, ability and momentum to best showcase his talents.

"One thing that I've really noticed is the speed they're playing at in attack and defence," says Cunningham, whose brother and former teammate Bryn works as the province's operations manager.

"That's a massive thing, that real desire. Whatever has happened, whether it's through coaching or confidence, there's a massive desire that is palpable when you're watching them.

"It's not just that, there are two other things you have to look at. First is execution of skills, because you can be the most committed team in the world but if you've no skill you're not going to get very far.

"Second is playing to a coherent game plan. It's quite clear that they've got a structure."

Stuart McCloskey off-loads as he is tackled by Connacht's Conor Fitzgerald in the Pro14 game on 27 December
Stuart McCloskey's off-loading and passing has a feature of Ulster's impressive season

McCloskey 'more than a crash ball merchant'

It is true that Ulster's recent performances have caught the eye of those outside the province and as such players like McCloskey are benefitting from a renewed sense of optimism around the Kingspan Stadium.

McCloskey has been the subject of rave reviews after impressive showings in recent European and inter-provincial wins in which the 6'4'' and 111kg centre his game extends far beyond his imposing physical capabilities.

"Sometimes because of that size and strength he gets pigeon-holed as a crash ball merchant," says Cunningham.

"I heard a story two or three seasons ago that in one of their pre-season routines Ulster did quite a lot of man-to-man wrestling.

"Centres were with centres, wings with wings but apparently McCloskey was just on a different level to the rest of the backs so they had to throw him in with the second rows and the back rows."

The physical reputation is not unwarranted and alongside Iain Henderson and Marcell Coetzee, McCloskey takes on the role of one of Ulster's chief ball carriers tasked with gaining the hard yards and drawing defenders out of position.

The problem is that rugby is not short of physically impressive specimens, and it is the additional skills that see a player's reputation evolve from solid to special.

In four recent European victories and consecutive resounding inter-provincial wins, McCloskey has demonstrated on the big stage the many strings to his bow.

"He's thrown big skip passes for tries, the pop-pass he gave for Matty Rea's try against Munster was beautifully timed, he steps off both feet and I think his defence and tackling technique have improved as well, he can't really do much more," Cunningham says.

Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki celebrate after Ireland's Grand Slam success in 2018
Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki will be McCloskey's main rivals for an Ireland centre berth

Ireland calling?

As McCloskey continues to deliver on the field, calls for his inclusion in Ireland's upcoming Six Nations campaign gather pace.

There is no doubt that with less than a month until Andy Farrell's reign as Ireland head coach begins against Scotland, McCloskey is presenting a compelling case for selection.

It is one of a number of considerations that the new head coach will mull over before selecting his squad and eventually his match day 23 for the visit of Scotland on 1 February.

Those of an Ulster persuasion might argue that if picking on form McCloskey's inclusion is a no-brainer, but centre remains arguably Ireland's deepest position and there are easily five players who can make a reasonable case for selection based on both form and credit in the bank.

If Ulster's form is good, then Leinster's is sensational which can only bode well for tried and tested duo Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw.

Then there's Bundee Aki who, through his absence, saw his stock rise as Ireland wilted to a humbling World Cup quarter-final defeat against New Zealand in October.

Chris Farrell and indeed Rory Scannell will hope to make their mark, but McCloskey can at this stage offer scarcely more to indicate why he should be adding to his three existing Ireland caps in the next two months.

"Stuart is the form centre in Ireland at the minute, there's no doubt about that," says Cunningham.

"Aki, Henshaw and Ringrose are going to be difficult to displace, and he's going to have to displace two out of those three to get a starting spot."

Stuart McCloskey (left) attempts to make ground in the European Champions Cup game against Clermont Auvergne at Kingspan Stadium in November
Stuart McCloskey (left) helped Ulster beat Clermont 18-13 at Kingspan Stadium in November

Ulster set for litmus test

Before thoughts turn to the Six Nations, McCloskey and Ulster are out to secure passage to the Champions Cup quarter-finals in their final two group matches.

With 17 points in the bag and a home game against the already eliminated Bath to come, they will be confident of getting the job done.

However while qualification is ultimately the goal, topping the group and securing a home quarter-final would be the most tangible indicator yet that Ulster are genuine silverware contenders.

Saturday's meeting with Clermont is likely to decide the winner of Pool Three, and will give the best indication yet as to the extent of Ulster's improvement.

A win at Stade Marcel Michelin, arguably European club rugby's most atmospheric venue in which Clermont have not lost in the pool stage since 2016, would catapult Ulster from a likely top eight team to a force to be reckoned with.

If not a win, then a performance where head coach Dan McFarland's 'fight for every inch' mantra is matched by the composure to execute a game plan inside one of the competition's most hostile environments.

"I want to see more of the same," Cunningham says.

"The speed that they've been playing at in attack and defence, that desire to get back on their feet, to get off the line, to make the hit and to get in support of the man with the ball.

"As a supporter, you want to see that first and foremost. I want to see us getting into Clermont's faces.

"If if we do that, we're in with a shout. If we sit back and let Clermont play, it's going to be a very difficult 80 minutes."