Rugby World Cup: Luke Marshall set to shine in next tournament after tough year
For much of the last two years, Luke Marshall's name will have been in Joe Schmidt's thoughts when the Ireland coach pondered the composition of his squad for this World Cup.
He was capped by the Kiwi during his first Test window in charge, starting at inside centre against Australia in 2013, and then took on Scotland in the following Six Nations.
When the team toured Argentina in the summer of 2014, the Ballymoney man was again front and centre, playing alongside Darren Cave in the midfield for the win in Resistencia.
Last year, however, little went right.
More struggles with concussion, a knee injury and a five week suspension all conspired to ensure he made just six starts during the most frustrating campaign of his short career.
Having not featured from the end of February onward, Marshall had little chance to force his way back into the Ireland reckoning and has had to watch on while the likes of Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong and Jordi Murphy, all teammates at the 2011 Junior World Championships, have got their chance on the biggest stage.
"Last year was personally pretty poor," admitted the 24-year-old. "I didn't have too many games with injuries and discipline problems.
"Watching the World Cup, it's frustrating but motivating too. I suppose I just need to set another aim for myself.
"I've missed out this time but I've just got to work hard and make sure that in four years the chance is there for me.
"It's all about getting a run of games and making sure your form is good.
"Cementing your place here at Ulster though, that has to be first and foremost.
"Even with Cavey (Darren Cave) and Jared (Payne) away, there's still Sam Arnold doing a real job. I want to make it as hard as possible, when the World Cup guys return, for them to get their places back."
The jersey he is currently out to protect is the unfamiliar outside centre's and he will start there tonight against Treviso at Kingspan Stadium.
More often a 12, he has found playing with Stuart McCloskey (pictured) inside him so far this season has created gaps and he is keen to develop another string to his bow.
"I haven't played too much 13 until this year but I'm enjoying playing with Stu," he said.
"He's a physical specimen so he attracts a lot of attention and in turn that gives you more space. I think versatility is good to have obviously. Cavey, it has gone for him (with Ireland), showing that he can cover 12 and 13.
"To do something else competently is something I'd like to develop. I'm still learning, it's a bit different but I'm enjoying it.
"Ideally I'd rather be at 12 but I'm enjoying the game time and if it works well for the team then all the better.
"It's just good to be getting back in the swing. Coming in and out is pretty frustrating and with other guys being changed too, a run of games with the same combinations makes all the difference.
"The back three is settled and then hopefully it can be myself and Stu in the centre."
A new position so far this season, but also a new look with Marshall taking to the field in a scrum-cap.
After his well-documented string of concussions, he is willing to try anything that may help, even if he acknowledges that scientific proof of the benefits are inconclusive.
"I decided at the end of last season to give it a go," he revealed.
"Obviously having concussions last year added onto the ones before, it was somewhat of a concern for me.
"Talking to a few doctors, they said there's no scientific proof that it will help but it certainly won't do any harm either. I just thought I'd try it and if doesn't annoy me too much I'll stick with it.
"I haven't had any concussions since but maybe I've just been lucky. I think the studies show it's the movement of the brain but technically I suppose with glancing blows maybe that padding would help.
"Then again, the knocks I did have two or three years ago, I imagine there wasn't much was going to help if you're on the ground getting kicked. It's a tough one."
Marshall uses the same adjective to describe tonight's visit from the perennial Pro12 strugglers.
"They're always tough and physical, Italians pride themselves on that but they can throw the ball around too.
"One of our big focuses has to be not letting the game get loose. The couple of games they've played, they've been at their most dangerous down 10 points. We need to make sure it's as structured as possible.
"We talked about it, if they go 10 or 15 down, the shackles come off and, it's a funny thing, they almost seem more confident. If you build a lead you need to maintain it and frustrate them."
More than the chance for a Pro12 victory, tonight offers the opportunity to right the wrongs of their last outing, a poor performance against Scarlets in west Wales almost three weeks ago.
Marshall is conscious of the need for stark improvement.
"It was a disappointing result and performance over in Llanelli and ideally I would have wanted a game straight away just to get back out there.
"We've been training for two weeks now and we know that we've got to put things right. One of those bad days at the office but professional players...I don't know what it was, mentally maybe not just there or something, but we let ourselves down.
"We've got to learn from it and move on."
Tonight, finally, Ulster have the chance to do so.