Ulster can set high bar without international stars, warns Paul Marshall
Ulster scrum-half Paul Marshall believes the province possess the necessary strength in depth to succeed during the opening weeks of the PRO12 campaign, even without their World Cup stars.
Joe Schmidt will announce his 31-man Ireland squad to the players on Sunday evening, with at least eight Ulstermen set to either be expecting or nervously awaiting the coach's call, while Ruan Pienaar will also be required by South Africa.
However, Marshall, who in Pienaar's absence should log considerable minutes in the No 9 jersey, believes that a long list of absentees is no excuse for failure during what will still be a significant stretch of the season.
Speaking yesterday at the launch of the new PRO12 season at Diageo's London HQ, he stressed that those coming into the side must seize their chance.
"We may be a bit depleted or we may get a few players back, which would be great from our point of view but disappointing for them obviously," said Marshall.
"We're planning like we don't have them and preparing as best we can without them. If we get a few back then obviously it will be a bonus.
"Younger guys will get opportunities in this next window and it's up to them how they respond to that.
"If they don't perform, they might not get another look in this season, that's just the reality. If they do, they could be in for the rest of the season.
"Guys are going to be champing at the bit, younger guys are going to be busting to play, guys who maybe haven't played as much are going to be busting to play. It's going to be very competitive."
While the attention of the rugby world during the next few months will understandably be on the showpiece event taking place across the Irish Sea, Marshall was keen to assert the importance of the PRO12's opening weeks, highlighting how missed opportunities cost the team dear last season.
Ulster finished just six points shy of second-placed Munster, who subsequently claimed an all-important home semi-final while Neil Doak's men lost their last-four tie in Glasgow, but that deficit could have been quickly erased if not for some slip-ups against the league's lesser lights.
"With the play-offs, and the top two getting those home semi-finals, there's a massive incentive there to be in those top spots and you can't afford any slip-ups," he said.
"There's certain games that we lost, or didn't pick up the bonus point, that hurt us last year.
"We got ourselves into positions but we need to make sure that we hammer home the advantage and are completely ruthless."
Marshall was impressive in 40 minutes of pre-season action against Leinster last Friday, and the 30-year-old was relatively pleased with his first outing of the new season, but, with the opening fixture against Ospreys now less than two weeks away, he is calling for more in the final warm-up game against Edinburgh in three days' time.
"I think obviously when you play any game you want to win but in pre-season the result isn't massively important," he said.
"Moving forward, it was good for me personally to get 40 minutes and to get playing again.
"I felt like I was absolutely knackered but it was only when I saw the stats after the game that I saw that the first-half was very fast.
"I was happy enough with how I went.
"For me it's hopefully going to be an interesting first few weeks and hopefully I get plenty of game time.
"Everyone wants to start well so hopefully we can improve when we play Edinburgh."
Marshall was replaced at half-time in the Leinster defeat, with both new signing Paul Rowley and David Shanahan featuring after the turn, and the three-times-capped Irish international believes the trio can bring the best out of each other.
"Paul Rowley's come in from London Welsh and he's looked pretty good," he said.
"If I can learn a bit from him and he can learn a bit from me it makes us both better players.
"He played a bit in the second-half against Leinster but we didn't have a lot of ball so it was tough to see what he's going to bring.
"He's in good shape and he's trained well so with him and David Shanahan, there's good competition in the squad.
"All three of us will want to play every game so whoever gets the nod will have to play well otherwise someone else will get the chance."