Belfast Telegraph

Ulster's Luke Marshall keen to make it a double against Welsh

By Michael Sadlier

Sunday evening was a mixture of emotions. On the one hand Luke Marshall had played his first game since injuring his knee in October, and had come through a full 80 minutes with a solid performance, but then the satisfaction of doing all that had been diluted by the fact that Ulster had lost and all but mathematcially crashed out of Europe.

But there has been no time to let the disappointment seep deep into his bones as Marshall, and his colleagues, are dealing with a six-day turnaround before they are back in Wales to take on the Ospreys who - though also looking spent when it comes to matters European - are currently sitting second in the PRO12 table with the same points total (31) as fourth-placed Ulster.

It's a must-win for both sides - with Ulster going for the double after beating them in Belfast last month - who currently harbour realistic ambitions of making the league play-offs.

Marshall gives the slant Ulster have been putting on things in the aftermath of last Sunday's events at Scarlets.

"You use it to your benefit really," the 23-year-old says.

"Rory (Best) was talking about it in training and how you should just be really cross with yourself this week and I think we were all annoyed and disappointed on Sunday night - and on Monday and Tuesday as well.

"Rory talked about keeping that anger and using it in a positive way and taking it out on the Ospreys so that's what we're going to try and do to bounce back."

It sounds like a reasonable plan as, after all, Ulster could have actually stolen away with a win from west Wales had fortune been rather more favourable to them.

Of much more relevance, though, is making sure that the quest for silverware in the PRO12 is kept firmly on track and this encounter - along with the next two festive season interpros against Connacht and Leinster - could reveal much of just where Neil Doak's men stand when it comes to their only realistic ambitions of high achievement in this campaign, never mind also ensuring they make the cut for next season's Champions Cup.

As Marshall explains: "Ospreys are going to up around the top four at the end of the season so we've got to beat them now and we just have to beat the top teams.

"Connacht on Boxing Day, they're going to be around the top six, so it's another one we've got to win and then there's Leinster as well.

"If you're thinking about a home semi you need to beat the top teams to give yourself a chance, so that's what we're aiming for," the strong running centre says.

His first game back was notable for the stats he produced with Marshall topping Ulster's tackle count with nine hits. He also threw in an assist for Darren Cave's excellently worked second half try with the genesis of that neat move looking like a well-rehearsed training ground plan.

"Yes, it's a training move though normally the ball would got out to Ruan (Pienaar), who would go out the back, but Cavey just said 'keep an eye open I might give you this one'.

"We saw that their tight five was sitting around that area and it was eyes up from Cavey who spotted the mismatch," Marshall modestly added, without referencing his own take and give to his centre partner.

And, just to show his willingness to graft in hard places, he also threw in a brief stint as flanker after Clive Ross was removed to allow on namesake Bronson Ross in the wake of prop Declan Fitzpatrick's yellow card.

So Marshall ticked all the right boxes last Sunday on his first game back for the senior team since the second game of the season against Zebre at the Kingspan and his return to fitness was particularly opportune as both inside centre rivals Stuart Olding and Stuart McCloskey were both out from the previous week's first-up European meeting with the Scarlets.

For once, then, Marshall got lucky in that a ready-made vacancy was waiting for him nearly two months after picking up his knee injury while togging out for Ulster Ravens.

"Both Stuarts have been playing good rugby and it's disappointing that Stuart McCloskey has picked up a nasty injury but it gives me and Stuart Olding a chance to stake our claims.

"It is a really tough position to get a start at these days," he admits, knowing full well that he has to be at the very top of his game to hang on in the number 12 shirt.

At least Joe Schmidt has taken notice and Marshall has been called down to the pre-Christmas Ireland get-together which begins on Sunday though he will be released the next day as his involvement in Boxing Day's Connacht game means he will have to be back for Ulster's preparation.

"Joe rang me just after I'd been injured and talked about just working hard with my rehab and trying to get back to fitness as quickly as possible.

"He was sort of saying 'if you get yourself back playing, and playing well, you're still in with a shout' so that was quite a nice piece of motivation.

"It's nice to be back in the mix again," says the player who last played for Ireland in June when winning his sixth cap on the summer tour to Argentina.

Making the cut for the World Cup is an obvious goal for Marshall but not one he is willing to linger on for long, what with concussions, injuries and loss of form all having pockmarked his recent career.

For the moment, then, Marshall's sole focus in staying fit and holding down a place at Ulster. If all that goes well then the rest just might follow.

"It's great to just be back playing again. It just makes you hungry for more really."

His appetite looks to have a keen edge to it again.

Belfast Telegraph

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