Ulster Rugby: It's time to show we have learned, says Luke Marshall
A reasonable enough starting point comes late on a Saturday evening last month when, with the mood decidedly glum, Luke Marshall stood in a room under Lansdowne Road's west stand and outlined his own vignette in Ireland's downfall to Australia.
A system breakdown in defence had allowed Quade Cooper waltz through to score the Wallabies' third try and Marshall held his hand up to making the error while describing how Joe Schmidt had given him words of encouragement after what had still been a pretty decent outing on only his fourth Ireland appearance.
So, with his learning curve having been somewhat steepened, the 22-year-old set about absorbing the lesson – Schmidt's post-autumn series request is that he ups his game defensively – and particularly so after looking on as battle-hardened veterans Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll then produced a masterclass in midfield play eight days after the Australia defeat in that game against the All Blacks.
Fast forward now to last Saturday and Marshall seems to have been doing some serious cramming and, of course, there is no better time to showing up than in the Heineken Cup. In that 48-0 annihilation of Treviso he produced just the sort of all-round performance that Mark Anscombe, and of course Schmidt, would have wanted from the powerful inside centre.
Leaving his yellow card aside, Marshall stood out as one of several who raised the bar to a level which Treviso's rather ragged ranks simply couldn't deal with.
There was a bit of everything mixed in with Marshall's display; two well-taken tries, strong running, even a little bit of tactical kicking and, of course, some pretty effective tackling.
Indeed, according to the official post-match statistics, he was equal top ball-carrier with Roger Wilson (10 carries each) while when it came to metres made he was second only to Craig Gilroy (Marshall made 83 metres to Gilroy's 92) and may well have topped that list as well but for those 10 minutes in the bin.
So, all is looking well then for the return game with Treviso as Ulster seek to stay unbeaten after four European games and remain setting the pace in their group.
"Overall I was happy with my performance," Marshall admits, "though there were a couple of things as I don't think you're going to get a game where you can say everything is perfect," which leads to that sin-binning and his honest assessment of what happened on a rare threatening moment produced by the Italians.
"I thought I'll take a risk there and I expected the yellow card so no complaints really," he says.
"It was massively pleasing coming off the pitch having won 48-0 and you're pleased with yourself," he adds before quickly putting things in perspective.
"But it's a massive challenge on the Monday not to just get ahead of yourself. The nature of the Heineken Cup means that the home and away games are so different. We could easily go out, play under par and lose," he maintains.
"Treviso are a good enough side to do that and they are the only team to beat Munster this year (in the PRO12) and it's a big challenge for us to keep our feet on the ground."
And when it comes to laying down the gauntlet, the Ulster coach has not held back when addressing what the squad needs to strive towards at the Stadio Monigo.
"Mark has challenged us by saying 'when was the last time you played a massive game and then another massive game,'" says Marshall.
"He said to us on Monday to go out and back it up (the win against Treviso) and we've probably not been able to do that in the past few seasons.
"We've put in big performances and then dropped a level the next week.
"Last year against Northampton it really hurt our chances pretty badly in the Heineken Cup," he recalls of Ulster winning in Franklin's Gardens and then getting beaten the next week at Ravenhill.
"Yes, we had a great win over there and then lost the next week at home and that cost us a home quarter-final," he adds.
Marshall refuses to buy into any hype and argues that there is still much to play for and also much that can go wrong.
"I think that (last year's Northampton failure) will be still fresh in some of the guys minds going into this game and the way this group is going, and with the way Leicester (two points behind) are playing, well, to be honest I can't see them not winning in France (they play Montpellier on Sunday).
"That means that we are probably going to have to win all six of our group games.
"We know we need to do the business in the next two games (after Treviso, Ulster host Montpellier in January) but it is looking like our final group game in Welford Road is going to be the decider," Marshall reckons.
"But," Marshall adds, "our future is in our hands."
True and the same applies to him as another few big performances, for Ulster, and Schmidt may well be reassessing his options at inside centre.