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Luke Marshall's good for Ireland call if Ulster sparkle

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 16/01/2016

Having witnessed the stress levels in the coaching box at the Stade Charles Mathon last week, Luke Marshall has understandably decided that the life of a professional rugby coach may not be for him.

With Ulster 23-0 down in their Champions Cup contest against Oyonnax, the stakes were considerably higher than Marshall has found in his new hobby, offering a helping hand to the coaches of Rainey Old Boys in the All-Ireland League, and even his side's dramatic second-half turnaround couldn't convince the Ballymoney man that it may be a rewarding career path when his playing days are done.

"It's definitely something I see more as enjoyment at the minute," he laughs.

"I don't know if I could see myself doing it professionally…it's maybe a bit high pressure for me.

"It's something that I'm really enjoying. It's been a bit up and down with results but it's a great bunch of guys.

"It's just something I find is a bit of an escape on a Tuesday and a Thursday from what we're doing here (with Ulster).

"It's a bit more light-hearted after a busy day and hopefully next year I'm going to stay on and continue."

While enduring a frustrating campaign last time out - injuries, a suspension and an admitted loss of form all hampered him - Marshall had more time to himself on the golf course and walking the dogs than he would have liked but, after starting with Rainey during the summer, it's now a minor miracle he finds time away from the game at all.

With six Irish caps to his name already, to call this season a breakthrough would be something of a misnomer but the 24-year-old may just be playing the best rugby of his career and, ahead of this afternoon's Champions Cup clash with Saracens at Allianz Park (3.15pm kick-off), is once again a key figure for the province.

All while having to learn the nuances of a new position that could even have him in the mix to fill the Irish 13 jersey worn with such distinction by a certain Brian O'Driscoll during his formative years.

Having went on to make his Irish debut in the same midfield during the final Six Nations of Declan Kidney's reign, the prospect of filling the role as O'Driscoll's long-term successor is a curious thought for Marshall. "Certainly out of the Irish players when I was growing up, watching him was certainly a big influence," he said.

"Getting the chance to play with him a few times was pretty special too and it did have a pretty big impact.

"There is still a bit of pressure around that 13 jersey because of the guy who used to wear it and I was a big fan but I'll always play where I'm put and that's 13 at the minute.

"I suppose over the next couple of weeks it's about trying to put in the performances to get into that final Six Nations squad.

"I feel really good at the minute and the confidence is good. I'm still young and I feel I've got a lot more to give but I'm happy with where I am. You have to kick on and keep it going though.

"I've got a lot more to learn and improve."

His string of notable performances already has him back in the thoughts of Joe Schmidt - he was included in the extended training party at Carton House at the beginning of last week - and setting his sights on a first cap since 2014.

"He's still pretty intense," joked the former Ballymena Academy pupil of his recent interactions with the Ireland head coach.

"I'm probably a bit more relaxed around him than I was when I first started.

"It was good to get back. I was involved in the Barbarians game last May but I suppose it wasn't a full camp.

"To be back properly, the first time since the Argentina tour, was great.

"I wasn't training because I was injured but just to be involved with those guys was great."

For now, though, Marshall is keen to focus on his province where his midfield dovetailing with Stuart McCloskey has been an eye-catching aspect of Ulster's form.

With Jared Payne returning to the fold today, and Darren Cave and Stuart Olding soon to follow, competition is sure to be intense for centre berths in the coming weeks.

"There's five internationals," he says of Ulster's midfield, slightly pre-empting McCloskey's ascension to the Test ranks.

"Jared being involved in the World Cup and winning the Six Nations last year, everyone knows how good a footballer he is.

"Cavey as well, the last couple of years he's been as good as he ever has been.

"It's good for us as a team, you want competition. I don't know if there's any club in Europe that has as much quality as we do in the midfield when you add Stuart Olding into that too."

Carrying his impressive form into today's top of the pool clash would certainly be one way of stating a case to keep his place.

Marshall is well aware, however, of the threat posed by Ulsterman Mark McCall's side and has stressed the need for an improvement on both the first-half showing against Oyonnax and recent results against today's opposition.

November's home humbling sticks particularly in the mind.

"Against Saracens, if we start like (we did against Oyonnax), it'll be game over," he said.

"It's a good position for us, nobody expects us to do a job.

"Outside of Ulster everyone expects it to be plain sailing. It's a really good challenge and one we're excited about."

Belfast Telegraph

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