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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 15 November, 2019
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100 up for Luke Marshall after being frustratingly close to Six Nations

‘You can end up missing two games and you don’t play at all.’

SO NEAR AND yet so far.

The cruel double-edged sword of being an international squad reserve can be a tough one to handle.

Luke Marshall and Rory Best Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

For Luke Marshall, an experienced centre despite his ever-youthful face, the Six Nations was a frustrating experience even before the results were taken into account.

Marshall was a travelling squad member for Ireland’s opening two fixtures in the Championship. He made the journey to Edinburgh and Rome, held tackle bags, ran lines in the warm-up and kept those infamous details brushed up. All the work you would expect of a Test rugby player, but without the perks. No matchday jersey, no chance to shine, no addition to the nine caps he carried into the year.

“It’s tough to watch those games,” Marshall tells The42. His frustration, like any self-respecting rugby player, comes from not playing.

You’re close to being involved. But one of the tough things for me being in that position is not getting to play at all.

“You sit and watch the Ireland game the Saturday, Ulster have played on the Friday – so you end up missing two games and you don’t play at all.

“Those first two weeks I didn’t play any games at all. That’s the way it is, professional rugby: someone’s got to sit and cover. At the same time, it’s good to be as close as I am. It’s just the next step for me is trying to push on and make a harder decision for Joe.”

While his 10th Test cap eluded him in the weeks before his 26th birthday, Marshall did get back to his province to help them rediscover the winning feeling. So as his team-mates try to notch a sixth win on the trot away to Dragons this Saturday, Marshall will become a provincial centurion.

Luke Marshall with James Coughlan James Coughlan welcomes Marshall to the big time. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Casting his mind back 99 caps to his very first Ulster appearance in 2010, Marshall’s memory remains vivid.

“I was on the bench for Munster at home. I think Mark McCrea pulled up after about 20 minutes and I ended up getting 60 minutes. It was a very good experience and something I wasn’t expecting. The year before I had struggled with injuries – I had a couple of games for Ballymena that season, but Brian McLaughlin came in and put us on the bench.”

Luke Marshall off loads the ball Source: Presseye/Angus Bicker/INPHO

Over the seven years since, Marshall’’s highlights in the white jersey are what you might expect: the nights and days when Ravenhill (latterly Kingspan Stadium) was turned into a cauldron for wins over the likes of Leicester or Clermont. The big days on home turf have always pretty much looked after themselves for Ulster.

It’s the away record that has weighed their campaign low of late with just two wins from their last nine trips. The rich vein of form tapped against the Italian sides and an under-strength Glasgow during the Six Nations has Ulster in fourth place in the Pro12. But it’s a perilous position when you look at a run-in that includes trips to Munster and Ospreys before round 22 brings Leinster to Belfast.

“But we know we can go those places and win,” Marshall says with a touch of defiance, “we went to the Liberty Stadium last year and got a bonus point win. We beat Munster away two years ago.

We know we can win in these places. it’s about turning up on the day and getting the mental approach cracked.”

He adds: “For us, after that dip we had. We almost have to win every game now until the end of the season.”

Sustaining their winning form into the business end of the season may well need Marshall to reach three figures in another stats column. The centre has burst through for 19 tries for Ulster to date, 95 points, he doesn’t need to think long about his favourite. It wasn’t the most flourishing move or a breakaway from 50 metres, it was just his first.

Source: TheUAFC/YouTube

“It was a very special moment for me, my mum’s got a picture of it in the kitchen,” he says with a laugh when recounting his 2011 score against Cardiff Blues.

“Ian Humphreys put me free, it was overlap ball. I‘d say I had five metres, max, to go.”

Luke Marshall runs in a try Source: Darren Kidd

The soft-spoken, smooth-passing, hard-hitting, tactical kicking centre seems to some up his century succinctly.

“Hopefully there’s a few more to come.”

For country as well as club.

Ultan Dillane unlikely to be fit in time for Ireland’s summer tour

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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