Paul Marshall: a true Ulsterman
During the 2011-12 season a good friend of mine from a non-rugby background asked me to get him two tickets for an Ulster game at Ravenhill.
In the course of watching Ulster win, he and his son – also of non-rugby stock – duly experienced the atmosphere about which they had heard so much.
I relate that anecdote because my most abiding memory of my friend's first experience of seeing Ulster at home is that one player – a replacement – impressed him more than any other.
"That guy was brilliant. The minute he came on he changed things. Fast or what?" he enthused.
The player on whom my pal lavished praise was Paul Marshall, who has just signed a three-year Ulster contract extension.
As some would see it, the ex-Methodist College pupil occupies an unenviable position. Cast in the difficult role of understudy to world-class Ruan Pienaar – probably the best player ever to wear the white jersey – destined to play in the shadow of the South African.
A lesser man might well have resented that. Alternatively he could have allowed his head to drop in the realisation he was never going to match Pienaar's ability. The "I'll never be as good as him" mode. But Marshall did neither of those. Instead he sought the positives in the situation by opting to apply himself to learning as a result of working and training alongside the maestro.
To Marshall's great credit, that has been the case all along. Having made that decision at the outset, he had never deviated from it, witness the fact that at the end of the mercurial Springbok's second season here, his willing understudy picked up the Belfast Telegraph Most Improved Player of the Year for 2011-12 at Ulster Rugby's gala awards ceremony.
It was hugely significant, too, that in January 2012 – four months before Marshall lifted that award – he and Pienaar signed contract extensions on the same day. Clearly Ulster's Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, saw them as being an inseparable double act, capable of bringing different things at different moments. Again, Marshall was happy to go along with that.
And clearly that remains Humphreys' view, hence the synchronised timing of the pair – acting as one – having just renewed their commitments to Ulster for a second time. The announcement that Pienaar had signed for a further three years was made a week ago today. It is no mere coincidence that news of Marshall's extension followed so promptly.
When each signed his previous contract at the start of 2012, in both cases it was for two seasons. They are in step this time, too, both have enlisted until June 2017.
As my friend observed that night at Ravenhill, Ulster's 'number two' number nine is a guy who changes things. And in answer to Davy's rhetorical question, yes, he is fast. And adventurous. And brave. And tenacious. His commitment is total; you never get anything less than 100% from 5ft 8in Marshall who, at 12st 6lb, punches well above his weight.
In an era when, in the main, scrum-halves concentrate on box-kicking and getting the ball to their number 10s and letting them call the shots, Marshall is a non-conformist who brings something very different to the table. He is 'old school' in that he loves to break, excels in finding – and, having done so, exploiting – gaps and backs himself in situations where others less confident would opt for safety.
His rugby may have been nurtured and tutored by Methody, but the player of whom he is most reminiscent is a product of the Malone Road school's rival seat of learning, Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Colin Patterson was a small scrum-half; indeed, at 5ft 7in and just 11st 5lb even smaller than Marshall.
But he, too, was quick, courageous and, from a defending opponent's perspective, worryingly unpredictable.
Marshall is the local-boy-made-good story, Ulster born-and-bred whose heart was set on playing for his native province. With 108 appearances, he is living the dream. Monday's news means he can continue to do so.
Time and again he has proved his worth to Ulster, most recently when deputising in Pienaar's absence as a result of South African duties in the Four Nations Championship.
In addition he has represented Ireland at under 20, sevens, 'A' and full international levels and although new coach Joe Schmidt omitted him when naming his squad for the three forthcoming Guinness Series matches, do not be surprised to see Marshall recalled at some point in the future.
Meanwhile Ulster supporters will take real heart from knowing that one of their own is on board for the next phase of the journey. And what does that mean to him? Read his words and judge for yourself: "To be able to play in front of friends and family is very special.
"I am passionate about playing for Ulster and I love what it represents. With the squad that we have at the present time and the redevelopment that is going on at the ground, Ravenhill is an exciting place to be."
You can't buy that sort of gut-level pride; enjoy the fact that dyed-in-the-wool Paul Marshall epitomises what it means to play for Ulster.