With scrum-half Ruan Pienaar given a well-earned week off following his heroics behind the South African pack which strangled Ireland, Scotland and England into submission in the autumn internationals, Paul Marshall gets another start for Ulster on Sunday afternoon in Llanelli (4pm).
The omens are good for, quite apart from Ulster’s successes in Wales thus far in 2012, the Principality has been a particularly happy hunting ground for Marshall as an individual.
A late, match-winning try against Ospreys was followed by two lengthy shifts against Cardiff Blues and NG Dragons, with the pivot enjoying 68 and 67 minutes of play-time respectively.
That’s a whole lot more than Declan Kidney gave him during the just-finished Guinness Series, the extent of Marshall’s participation having been a 19 minutes run-out for the Ireland XV who were home and dry against Fiji long before he was called upon to take over from Conor Murray at Thomond Park.
That followed a summer tour in which he went all the way to New Zealand — delaying surgery on an elbow injury so that he could participate — only to end up in the role of a spectator. If that and his latest experience hurts or bugs him, Marshall is far too good a professional and decent a man to let it show.
“It was good,” he says of his latest sampling of life in an Ireland camp. “I wasn’t originally involved but got brought in when Eoin Reddan took a bit of a knock on his ankle against South Africa.
“It was nice to be involved, obviously, with the Fiji game as well. It’s good to be in the set-up and hopefully knocking on the door.”
Controversially there were no caps for that outing against the Fijians, prompting Marshall to admit: “I suppose you always have that fear; you don’t want to go through your whole career and not be capped.
“You want to play for Ireland, from a schoolboy right through you want to play at your national level. Hopefully I can still get an opportunity.
“Obviously it (the non-awarding of caps) had nothing to do with the players — we just had to play and accept the occasion that it was and try and treat it as professionally as we could do.
“We won the game well, so it was encouraging.”
Now, though, his thoughts and sights are on Llanelli rather than Limerick, where Ulster backline colleagues Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Darren Cave excelled in the 53-0 rout of Fiji. They are all on board again this weekend.
The 27-year-old scrum-half was hugely impressed by his team-mates’ contributions a fortnight ago in Thomond Park where Gilroy scored a hat-trick of tries, Marshall and Cave bagged one apiece and Jackson kicked 17 points.
“I didn’t play that much with Paddy Jackson last year — just a couple of times — but we’ve played a lot this year and I think he’s a seriously talented player. He’s really great to play with,” Marshall added.
“It was one of the best games I’ve seen Luke play in a while, Darren played well and Craig was phenomenal. It’s great having all those guys playing with you, guys you know well and (who are) able to take it on to that next level.”
In the wake of that impressive win, Ireland’s final match of the three autumnal fixtures was the somewhat more challenging test against Argentina. Ahead of that, however, Marshall (Paul) and Andrew Trimble were told they would not be required whereupon they were released to re-join their Ulster colleagues in Italy.
“Myself and Andrew had to train on Thursday morning in Dublin and then we had two flights out to Venice. We got in about 10 o’clock in the evening,” he explained.
“But we were both bursting to play (against Treviso), so we were just glad we were able to get across and get playing. It wasn’t an epic game to play in, but obviously we got the result and that was pleasing for us.”
Marshall admitted the 16-15 win in Treviso had been a tad fortunate, and that the players were resigned to the hosts’ fly-half Alberto di Bernardo landing the late penalty which would have given his side an 18-16 lead.
“We were standing under the posts with a minute to go, trying to plan how we were going to get the ball back because we assumed they were going to get the kick,” he revealed.
“We were thinking ‘How are we going to get one more chance to win the game?’
“Thankfully they missed the kick and we were able to see out the remaining minute.”
Marshall feels Ulster tend to be hard on themselves after performances which don’t come up to expectations. And, indeed, after emphatic displays, too.
“We won the Dragons and Edinburgh games, scoring six tries in both of those games, but we felt, as a team, that we actually didn’t play that well,” he said.
“But I think if you look at the last couple of games where we haven’t played that well we haven’t scored as many tries so we’ve had to grind the win out.
“I think it shows character that we’re able to go points behind but still know that we’ve got enough in the tank to come back. But you just don’t want to be doing that every week; you’d rather be winning by 40 points than scraping home.”
That said, Ulster would be delighted to scrape home against Scarlets on Sunday.
School: Methodist College, Belfast
Height: 5ft 8in (1.73m)
Weight: 12st 6lbs (79kg)
Ulster appearances: 88 (11 tries)
Representative honours: Irish XV (v Fiji, 2012), Irish Under 21s (2005-06), Ireland ‘A’ (Churchill Cup 2008), Ireland 7s (IRB Rugby World Cup 7s, 2009)