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Four years on from passenger's role in North America, Marmion intent on putting his stamp on tour

The Connacht scrum-half jokes that meeting JJ Watt was one the highlights of the last tour to the US as he was left out of both matchday squads.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

NO MATTER HOW much or how little you buy into the hype, history and relevance of the Lions, if you support your own national team then the quadrennial tour brings some inherent benefits.

International coaches constantly are under pressure to perform; to deliver victories,  quality displays and fill the Aviva Stadium. So they generally pick the most proven, experienced players they possibly can for a given run of games. However, in a Lions year they are forced to change it up.

Four years ago, Kieran Marmion was one of six uncapped players called up to tour North America. A new dawn filled with hope as Joe Schmidt waited in the wings to take over.

Unfortunately for Marmion, two-Test tours don’t always provide the plunge into the deep end that young players ready for the big time might want. Five new caps were handed out in the narrow win over the USA, yet Marmion was omitted from both matchday 23s, track-suited on the sidelines while Isaac Boss and Paul Marshall shared the minutes on offer. The Connacht man would have to wait another 12 months to win his first cap in Argentina.

Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion at the Falls Marmion and his then Connacht team-mate Robbie Henshaw at Niagara. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I guess I got to see a lot of Canada and America,” Marmion says self-deprecatingly when asked what had been the highlight of his first senior international tour.

“We did a few trips, went up to Niagara Falls… JJ Watt looked after us and took us to his house.”

Fast forward four years and Marmion is headed back to the US as Ireland’s senior nine, yet the 13 caps  don’t accurately portray that status.

The 25-year-old’s terrifically controlling performance in the Slam-busting win over England was just his second international start. He has had to work extremely hard – including 40 minutes as a wing against Australia –  to earn the trust of Joe Schmidt and shake off a perception as a ‘fast and loose’ playmaker, but his refined performances at the tail end of the Six Nations put him in a whole new light for the national audience.

He surprised many, but the mention of those raised eyebrows just bring a smile. While Marmion has never made anything but the most professional noises about being behind Conor Murray in the pecking order, he never doubted he could step in and ensure Europe’s best scrum-half was barely missed.

Kieran Marmion with Josh Van der Flier and Conor Murray Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I always back myself, but when you’re thrown in there you’re always going to be a bit nervous. The training you do throughout the week is always pretty game-intense. Joe gets you up to speed and let’s you know what’s coming.

“It gives me huge confidence to play in those sort of environments. Playing against one of the top teams in the world you know you can play against the best. It gives you confidence going back into you province and then in other games with Ireland knowing you have got that in the bank. You can try and work from there and push on.”

That bank of experience in the most fervent of atmospheres will surely give Marmion a leg up to control at least two of the upcoming three Tests from the start. As Schmidt pointed out last week though, Luke McGrath also took the field in impressive fashion against England and will be nipping at the Connacht man’s heels.

“He’s been going well this year. Not just him, I think John (Cooney) has been going well as well.  I guess it’s good to have that competition in the squad and I think we’ll just hopefully bring the best out of each other.”

John Cooney celebrates his try with Kieran Marmion Cooney has played out-half for Connacht this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

John Cooney does appear to be firmly in third place behind the internationals in this squad as he has been asked in training to fill various gaps in the back-line – an ability and experience that Schmidt will likely utilise before returning from Japan this month.

However, with  Murray away with the Lions, all three number nines will be scrambling to fill the power vacuum and mark themselves out as an alternative that Schmidt can show trust in. Just as Marmion did in Cardiff when he was belatedly called upon to replace the lame Munster star.

“I’m a different player to Conor. I guess when you’ve got someone who’s working for you and going do well you’re going to place your trust in that.

“Joe is always on to me about working on certain aspects of my game. I’ve been working hard on that, so it’s just adding that to what I already do and I guess, my traits of the game that are a bit different to Conor’s, I try to bring that in as well.

Joe gives you a bit of a license but obviously you’ve got to be nailed on with what he wants as well. So it’s about making sure I do that, and then when the opportunities come to bring my stuff in, as long as it works out.”

Picturing the weeks ahead as he chatted in Carton House last week, Marmion rests back on the word ‘opportunity’ time and again. Sightseeing in the US and Japan won’t cut it this time. It’s not going to pass him by.

“He has challenged a few of us to step up (who) probably wouldn’t have been senior players before.

“With lads missing and lads coming  in for their first time lads have been challenged to step up, I guess I’m one of them who’ve been around for a bit of time now. There’s an opportunity there off the field as well, to step up and try to lead a bit more.”

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Sean Farrell

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