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'I felt when I came back my skills were probably better than when I got injured'

Luke Marshall hit the ground running after his long injury lay-off and is intent on helping Ulster get back to Glasgow in a week’s time.

It's been a long road back for Luke Marshall.
It's been a long road back for Luke Marshall.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

LUKE MARSHALL SITS in the media room at Kingspan Stadium, arms folded with a grin on his face. Calm, collected, cool.

Content.

It’s hard to believe that 12 months ago his rugby career had once again been thrust into jeopardy, an ACL injury sustained in the Champions Cup play-off against the Ospreys in Belfast reigniting those concerned and hushed whispers over whether this was it for the oft-injured centre.

For Marshall himself, never mind having to hear the constant questions over whether that was that, it was a cruel blow passed down by the hands of fate. Repeatedly dogged by head knocks that kept him sidelined much longer than he would have wanted, all he wanted was a run of clean health to get back to the level he knows he can be at.

Instead, he had a watching brief for the first seven months of the season, seeing the team’s fortunes on the pitch take an upturn, while all the time wondering where his own future in the team lay.

After all, Will Addison had come in and was excelling at outside centre, while Darren Cave had stepped up when the English-born Irish international then went down injured himself.

But sport can be funny. His return coincided with the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final away to Leinster, a game that he was forced into service in due to a severe lack of other options available. He scored a try with virtually his first touch since coming on as a second half substitute and since then he hasn’t looked back.

Luke Marshall scores their second try Luke Marshall burrows over the line for Ulster at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He started the next week at Glasgow, then again a week later against Edinburgh. He was selected ahead of Cave for the PRO14 quarter-final against Connacht and will now line-up at Scotstoun once more for the semi-final (kick-off 19.35, eir Sport).

Call it what you want: luck, skill or a combination of the two. Either way, he doesn’t care.

“My timing was pretty good, I got lucky. I think I got playing in that quarter-final just by default there were so many injuries, I was probably the only man left standing!” he grins, allowing himself to fall on one side of the fence.

From watching the boys since the start of the season it’s been amazing how much we’ve kicked on from last season. Everyone wanted to move on from last season and it’s been great for squad development to see so many young boys coming through and really playing well and putting their hands up for selection.

“I’m just lucky to be a part of it now at the end of the season.”

He does have one man to credit for fitting back seamlessly into the system: skills coach Dan Soper, who has been nothing short of a revelation since joining the backroom staff at Kingspan Stadium.

Universally liked by the squad and lauded for his influence since joining from Banbridge, Marshall reveals that Soper did work with him behind the scenes during his rehab, meeting up for four skills sessions a week to keep him ticking over while he couldn’t be out on the pitch.

Normally if I was coming back from injury my passing would be one thing that would be rusty, but that’s been a lot different this year. I felt when I came back my skills were probably better than when I got injured,” he admits.

“I suppose just the pace of the game and reading the game we were encouraged a bit more to go to the meetings and reviews, so you are still trying to learn from the games. That would have been a bit different.

“I think you just feel a bit more part of it. When you are stuck in the gym and doing rehab with a long injury you can feel quite separated from the squad and that you are supposed to be a rugby player but you are miles from doing that. It can be tough.

“This year, with the skills being brought in and Dan working with the injured players, it has been good fun as well and that makes things a lot easier if you can enjoy your time when you are out injured.

“I have been able to actually, it makes things a lot easier, you get back playing you are more ready than before.”

Luke Marshall Marshall during Ulster's clash with Glasgow at Scotstoun. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

He’s come back into a team that’s full of confidence, full of potential and clearly pulling in the right direction. While last year at this stage of the season they were playing for their European futures, Ulster are now playing for a place in a final – unthinkable 12 months ago.

With a young team eager to impress, complemented by outgoing legends such as Rory Best and Darren Cave, there is a drive within the squad itself, but Marshall was quick to point to the benefit that bringing new head coach Dan McFarland into the system has been.

“Dan has installed a good culture, not that things were terrible last year or in years gone by. But we’re probably harder working,” states Marshall.

“Guys are putting the extras in in the video room or at the end of sessions, or even in rehab in the gym.

“In the past maybe guys were doing extras just to be seen to be doing them but now they know it’s going to make a difference to the squad and the team. I think that’s a big difference.

The other thing is giving the young guys their chance. There’s been so many that have been given an opportunity and they’ve taken it. That gives the squad confidence, almost a fearlessness.

“You see in big games that we’re not afraid to express ourselves and that’s partly to do with the young guys playing. When those guys get a chance, knowing if they do well they’ll get another, that pushes on the older guys too. They’ve got to be on top of their game, it brings a competitive edge.”

The big question: would that have made a difference in the past few years when things were perhaps not at the same level they are now?

“Maybe. It’s hard to say,” Marshall ponders. “In hindsight maybe. It’s different individuals, five six years ago, we had John Afoa, Ruan, Stephen Ferris, Jared…superstars, great players and massively talented. The squad is tighter knit now.

“Back then I’m not saying we were divided but we weren’t as close as we are now. There’s a real bond there between us that’s partly down to Dan and what he’s instilled within us and partly down to the individuals.”

Tonight will result in one of two things – the end of Ulster’s season or their ticket to their first final appearance since 2014. Either way, a massive effort will be required if the northern province wish to storm the Scotstoun fortress, from which only Saracens and Edinburgh have stolen wins this season.

But, in what is ever increasingly a rarity for a professional sportsperson, Marshall does let the usual stock answers slide when asked about the potential of returning to Glasgow in a week’s time to contest the final.

Nine times out of ten, perhaps more, the answer coming back at you would be one that would have you reaching for your notebook of cliches – “we can’t look past this game”, “we haven’t even thought about it” – but not in this case.

“You always find yourself, just whenever you have a bit of free time, thinking about what it would be like to lift a trophy over in Celtic Park,” he admits with a fair amount of candour. “You’ve got to, that’s the motivation at the end of the day.

“We’re not thinking past the semi-final but you have to imagine how good it would be. It’s so long since we’ve won a trophy here, and it’s even been a while since we’ve been in a position to be close to it.

“It would be incredible but there’s a tough game coming on Friday and even if we win that there’s a tough opponent waiting in the final so we’re a ways away.”

Refreshing honesty. Talk is cheap though. Now they need it to be done on the pitch.

Glasgow Warriors:

15. Stuart Hogg
14. Tommy Seymour
13. Kyle Steyn
12. Sam Johnson
11. DTH van der Merwe
10. Adam Hastings
9. Ali Price

1. Jamie Bhatti
2. Fraser Brown
3. Zander Fagerson 
4. Scott Cummings
5. Jonny Gray 
6. Rob Harley
7. Callum Gibbins (captain)
8. Matt Fagerson.

Replacements:

16. Grant Stewart 
17. Oli Kebble
18. D’Arcy Rae
19. Ryan Wilson
20. Tom Gordon 
21. George Horne 
22. Pete Horne 
23. Huw Jones.

Ulster:

15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Robert Baloucoune
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Louis Ludik
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Ross Kane
4. Iain Henderson
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Nick Timoney
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Andrew Warwick
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Sean Reidy
21. David Shanahan
22. Michael Lowry
23. Darren Cave.

Referee: John Lacey [IRFU]. 

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne look at Ireland’s past in Super Rugby, the creative shift needed in Irish rugby and Peter O’Mahony tells us about his love of gardening..:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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