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Home comfort for Ulster against Zebre will get Paul Marshall ready to fire

After last weekend's draw in Wales, Ulster expect to dominate

By Michael Sadlier

He looks around the place and passes appropriate judgment on his plush surroundings.

"For me, having supported the side as a 12 or 13-year-old and remembering what it was like and to see it now I think is just amazing," says a relaxed Paul Marshall on a sunny mid-week afternoon at the Kingspan Stadium.

Not that he has come over all nostalgic about the ground formerly known as Ravenhill, it's just that tomorrow night brings the first competitive home game of the season when Zebre provide the opposition (kick-off 7.35 and live on BBCNI) and Marshall is already focusing on the here and now, but just with a bit of reflection thrown in.

"Hopefully now we can put in a performance on Friday that will justify our facilities and justify our fan base as well," the 29-year-old scrum-half adds before tipping more than a nod towards last Saturday's opener in what was the helter-skelter of the 32-32 draw at Parc y Scarlets.

But for Carl Frampton's title-winning fight last Saturday night, followed by Northern Ireland pulling off a shock win in Hungary the next day, then Andrew Trimble's final minute dash over the Scarlets line and Ian Humphreys' equalising conversion might have gained much more prominence after the visitors had dramatically salvaged three points from the draw – the try bonus adding that extra point – after having mounted their stunning fight back from being 14 points down with 17 minutes left on the clock.

Still, even if it didn't quite feature as prominently on the radar, the nature of the result left Ulster feeling reasonably good about themselves, as Marshall admits before adding a few reservations just in case we all think they've got carried away.

"We came back well and we showed great character and our fitness was good right up to the end.

"And being able to bring guys off the bench like Andrew Trimble or Nick Williams shows that we have a squad that is very talented and also has a bit of depth in it," says the player who is expected to make his 126th appearance for Ulster tomorrow night.

And then he opts to reflect on how he and his team-mates had managed to find themselves looking well out of contention and seemingly heading towards defeat on interim coach Les Kiss's first competitive game in charge.

"We were disappointed with the tries we conceded as some of them were a bit soft," Marshall says.

Then, he references the third time the Welsh side crossed the Ulster line, which came directly off an intercepted pass which he had thrown during an attack just before half-time.

"That one that came off me was an interception and their scrum-half then goes half the length of the pitch and things like that just end up making rugby a bit more difficult than it should be," before the smile returns again, when the high tackle given against him – stature wise, the smallest Ulster player – by referee Peter Fitzgibbon is mentioned.

With the humour dealt with, it's back to business though, and the need to remain positive about not actually having lost at Parc y Scarlets as Ulster did last year.

They also happened to lose on trips to the Dragons (on opening day last September) and Cardiff Blues.

"We were disappointed to not come away with a win but I think when you're 14 points down with around 15 minutes to go and you come back to draw with a try bonus I think you just have to take the positives in that," says the three-times capped Ireland international who was part of the triumphant Emerging Ireland side at the Nations Cup held in Romania last June.

"If we can score four tries again we shouldn't be drawing those games but winning them. I don't know when we last conceded 32 points (the Scarlets scored four tries as well) but I'd say it's probably been a while ago.

"From our point of view we don't want to concede anywhere near that many points again this weekend. Hopefully some of the good attacking we had last weekend will stand to us and see us try and kick on again with that this week," says the player who should get a decent run of games with Ruan Pienaar still on duty with the Springboks in the Rugby Championship.

Though it's Zebre tomorrow – who Cardiff Blues beat 41-26 last Sunday – Marshall is right to dismiss this game will be a pushover for the hosts, far from it and especially as the two encounters the sides fought out last season both ended in less than convincing wins for Ulster – 19-11 over there and 13-6 in Belfast.

"After those couple of close runs last year they'll be looking to take our scalp, but we know we're a good side and we know we have to perform under pressure to get the rewards.

"Hopefully we are going to be a force to be reckoned with."

So far, there might be something to his aspiration.

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