By Ed Elliot, PA, Dublin
Ireland centre Stuart McCloskey admits he does not fully understand why he was regularly overlooked by former head coach Joe Schmidt ahead of potentially making a fifth successive Test start under Andy Farrell.
The Ulster man was handed his international debut by Schmidt against England in the 2016 Six Nations but won just two further caps up to and including the 2019 World Cup.
McCloskey has been in contention for selection far more frequently during the Farrell era and is expected to retain his role at inside centre for Saturday’s blockbuster clash with reigning Grand Slam champions France in Dublin following last weekend’s win in Wales.
Asked what current boss Farrell sees that Schmidt did not, he replied: “I don’t know, maybe I’m a better player now than I was back then.
“I think my game has improved. There’s obviously been a lot of competition in there. Maybe I just didn’t fit Joe’s eye. But here, that’s in the past, not something to worry about now.
“I probably had a bit more hard feelings at the time but I’m a bit older, that’s the way it is sometimes, you don’t get the luck, you don’t get the rub of the green.
“It will be five (starts) in a row at the weekend, so it’s a nice place to be in.
“I feel a lot more comfortable now with my game and what I can do, whether it’s the first or 80th minute, whereas I was over-thinking it when I was younger.”
McCloskey, who has been partnering Garry Ringrose in midfield, has faced fierce competition for a starting berth from Bundee Aki and the injured Robbie Henshaw.
He seized the number 12 jersey during autumn wins over South Africa, Fiji and Australia when Aki was initially suspended and Henshaw had fitness issues.
The 30-year-old admits the seven-year gap between his appearances in the Six Nations means he now places greater value on international opportunities.
“It’s not the end of the world, it’s only rugby at the end of the day, but I put a lot of effort into my game so it’s nice to get games and to show what I can do,” he said.
“I think everyone relishes playing for Ireland, it’s the pinnacle of your game and where I wanted to get to, so it’s nice.
“I’d say it makes me relish it a bit more now and I do appreciate it a lot more.”