Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Luke Marshall has makings of a key man for Ireland

Luke Marshall is tackled by Donncha O'Callaghan during Irish training

He is just 22 and his Irish caps number just three. But already Luke Marshall has been in enough media sessions to know the etiquette.

Be humble, toss in a little self-deprecation, always be respectful when talking about the opposition – including team-mates with whom you are vying for a jersey – add a dash of humour if you can and, above all, do not repeat anything that has been discussed behind closed doors. Those are the basics.

At yesterday's press conference at Carton House, Ireland's Co Kildare camp for the upcoming Tests against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, one could not help but admire the Ulster centre's ability to adhere to the protocol, while somehow managing to keep eager journalists at arm's length but simultaneously onside, too.

Inevitably, there were questions about last season's hat-trick of concussions. Capped three times and on each occasion forced to leave the pitch after suffering a serious blow to the head. Quite a record.

How worried was he when returning to the fray for the first time after that unfortunate treble?

"The first game I was a little bit nervous. It was just at the back of my mind, but it wasn't too bad," he replied candidly. "I suppose I was thinking 'If I get knocked out again, what's going to happen?' But after I got the first couple of tackles away in that first game, that was it. I haven't really thought of it since. I've had no problems since, either."

With concussion a growing cause for concern in rugby circles, Marshall was asked about the procedure he went through before being allowed to resume. Queue a timely shot of humour.

"Initially after the three concussions it was just about passing the tests. I had a couple of consultations with doctors and specialists and they were sort of happy enough that I wasn't really suffering any ill-effects – no dizziness, no sore heads – so they were just happy with rest.

"This season has been fine so far," he was quick to add.

His recollection of a consultation carried out in Dublin provided the opening for a comedic moment.

"I was expecting him to be asking specific stuff about my head, but he was asking stuff to see if I was going to get annoyed. Apparently that's one of the signs so he was asking me things about my parents and brothers – just stuff that wasn't related to it at all."

The follow-up question was: "And did you become annoyed?"

Quick as a flash Marshall shot back with: "No. Paddy Wallace had told me what to expect so it wasn't too bad!"

Touché.

The fact that he is such a solidly built young midfielder these days is a by-product of the time out he was forced to endure in the aftermath of those concussions against Scotland, France and Italy.

"I wasn't doing too much pitch training so I was in the gym a bit more. I've put on a wee bit of muscle in my time off and I've got a pre-season behind me as well," he pointed out.

"I suppose I feel a bit stronger in the contact area and for a 12 that's a plus. But I've found since the start of the season I've played so many games – every league game and a couple of friendlies – that I haven't put on any weight since pre-season."

It is going to be very interesting to see former Leinster coach Joe Schmidt's first selection. Ireland's new head coach has included 17 Leinster players in his squad, plus Jonny Sexton who left his native province to enlist with French club Racing Metro at the end of last season.

The out-half was scheduled to fly back to Paris last night, ahead of Racing's Top 14 date with Biarritz Olympique. Already, he has had 13 matches in 12 weeks – a gruelling schedule for a player who toured with the Lions during the summer. Schmidt's fingers are crossed that Racing will rest him this weekend.

With the old Irish midfield brigade – Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll – still there, Marshall was suitably deferential when asked about the likelihood of his inclusion against the Samoans a week from tomorrow.

"I think we'll be putting out the strongest team possible against Samoa. Obviously they're a quality team – I think they're ahead of us in the rankings," he said.

"We've got three big games so we have to field the strongest team in each."

Asked if he felt he belonged in that strongest team, Marshall said: "I'm happy with my form this season, but it's hard to look past what Gordon has done in the past. He has been brilliant for Ireland for 10 years and I'm fresh here. So I wouldn't say I expect to start, definitely not. But if I am, I'll be very happy."

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