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'Would I be as passionate about another club?' Marshall poised to join Ulster's 200 club

‘Any time there’s been an opportunity to look away I was still on the edge of the Irish set-up and I didn’t want to go away and miss out on that.’

WHEN IT COMES to milestones, it’s been a rather big few months for Ulster.

First it was Robbie Diack marking his 200th Ulster cap away to La Rochelle. Then, only a week later, Rory Best joined him in the double century club against Leinster. And, as if that wasn’t enough, winger Craig Gilroy reached 150 in Port Elizabeth against the Southern Kings.

This week it’s the turn of scrum-half Paul Marshall, who will also reach the impressive 200 mark against Benetton at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7:05pm), and the former Methody man laughs when it’s put to him that both Diack and Best lost their respective milestone matches.

Paul Marshall after the game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Hopefully we’ll get a win, and it would be nice to mark the occasion with a win,” he smiles. “With all the other big milestones being away from home, it’ll be nice to be here in front of close friends and family.”

It’s been a long journey for Marshall, who made his Ulster debut in November 2006 against the Dragons, right the way up to today.

“It’s funny because when you start off you definitely dream of getting your first game, you get a taste for it, then you say I’d love to get 30 and 40 games and thinking ahead,” he reflects.

“When you get to the big first milestone of 100, your mind wanders and you think I wonder if I still be here and playing and wondering if you can push on for 200. Now that I’m at 200, wondering if I’ll push on to get 300! But I think I might be too old for that when the time comes.”

And a particular highlight? Well, all of it really.

“When you sit back and reflect you realise that it’s still the enjoyment factor buzz of getting to play every week,” Marshall continues. “Training is good and training is fun, but getting to actually go out and play against an opposition, go out in front of a crowd and just the buzz as the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you go out to play.

Those sort of things will be very hard to replicate when you stop playing because you just won’t have that any more. The thing I get when I play, especially when I start a game, I’m in the toilets trying to control myself. I suppose you’re trying to prove to yourself, your team mates and everybody that you deserve to be in the position to be playing.

“For me it has been a joy to get playing with some great players over the years, and coached by some great coaches as well. Just to be part of the organisation that I grew up with as a schoolboy and wanting to be above them.”

If he is to reach 200, it’ll be off the bench against the Italians as he once again adopts a role that he has played on so many occasions for the northern province, and continues to do so with John Cooney now at Ulster.

In many ways that makes the achievement all the more special – that Marshall, who has sat on the bench for countless years behind the likes of Kieran Campbell, Isaac Boss and, most notably, Ruan Pienaar, has still been involved enough to make it to that double century.

Les Kiss with Paul Marshall Marshall takes instruction from Les Kiss in Ireland camp. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It’s not something that’s lost on the 32-year old, who at one point could have gone abroad with Saracens and Biarritz courting his services, but ultimately he stuck it out in Belfast to make it to this point.

“The thing that has always stuck in my mind is would I be as passionate about another club,” he ponders. “I don’t know, maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. I guess you don’t know until you go.

Any time there’s been an opportunity to look away for certain reasons, a few years back when I maybe could have, when Ruan was here, I was still on the edge of the Irish set-up and I didn’t want to go away and miss out on that.

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“My dream was to play for Ulster and Ireland, not to play rugby for X, Y, or Z. Unfortunately, in terms of the Ireland set-up, nothing ever came of that, but I think if I’d gone away at that stage, ended the chance of playing for Ireland, I probably would have been really disappointed.

“You make what you think is the best decision for you, your rugby and your family. I think as you get older, you’re not making the decision for yourself but the whole collective.

“If I wasn’t enjoying it here, if I couldn’t offer this organisation anything more, then maybe I would have looked to move on. For me, I still get as much enjoyment out of it as I ever have done.

“I want to play as long as I can, as long as I can keep playing hard and working hard, I want to be a part of it.”

At just 32 he does still have several years left him – even though he will have to wait to see if his contract is extended at the end of the season – but for now the focus is on downing Benetton this weekend.

After a two week break for the November Internationals, Ulster have returned refreshed and rejuvenated after their South African odyssey at the beginning of the month and are now ready to chase down the conference-leading Scarlets.

There weren’t too many performances to shout about before that rest period, even the bonus point win over the Kings featured a very porous defensive display, but arguably welcoming an Italian side to Belfast is the perfect remedy.

Paul Marshall collects the ball from Ryan Caldwell Marshall cathes a pop pass from Ryan Caldwell in 2008. Source: PRESSEYE/Darren Kidd/INPHO

However, Marshall is wary that the visitors to Kingspan Stadium tonight aren’t the Guinness PRO14 whipping boys of old, and he warns that they can’t afford to think this is game is in the bag already.

“If you look at the league this year, it’s more competitive again than it was last year,” he argues. “If you look at both the Italian teams they have really lifted their game.

“(Treviso) nearly beat Toulon at home, which tells you just how far they have come in the last year or two. It will be tough.”

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