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Newport Gwent Dragons v Ulster: Luke Marshall hits ton and targets a silver lining

Ulster's latest centurion is determined to land a trophy as he reveals how patience paid off in the long journey to make his mark

By Jonathan Bradley

As he reflects on a century of Ulster caps, Luke Marshall admits it's a milestone he once doubted he'd ever reach.

The centre will hit the 100 against Newport-Gwent Dragons in Rodney Parade tonight (7.35pm kick-off), seven years after making his professional bow as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in 2010.

That first outing came off the bench in a losing effort against Munster, but a look at the team-sheet from that night highlights the varying forks in the road for a professional rugby player.

Of those who started, only two remain at Ulster with Ruan Pienaar and Robbie Diack again pulling on the white jersey this evening.

From the others who ran out for an interpro that autumn night, there is the expected handful of retirees while one, Nevin Spence, is tragically no longer with us.

The fourth group, and one Marshall thought at one point he may join, is comprised of those who were forced to face up to the idea that their future lay away from the familiarity of their native province.

With Ulster having produced such a glut of talented centres in recent years, the Ballymena man had spent months wrangling with the idea that he would be the odd man out in the logjam.

Now, with a contract extension that runs until the summer of 2018, he believes his decision to stay at home has been justified.

"(The 100th cap), it's something I didn't think I would achieve. I definitely didn't think I'd get this far," he said.

"Looking back to two years ago when I was struggling to get into the squad, to be honest I thought I was going to have to move on because I didn't think I was going to get back in.

"I had maybe 50 or 60 at that stage so it will definitely be a proud moment (tonight).

"Looking at the competition, and the way I have upped my game in the last few years, I stayed and fought for my position and this shows that it's paid off I suppose."

Looking back over the last seven years and, of course, the main regret is a lack of silverware.

With the province having failed to lift a trophy since the Celtic League in 2006, Marshall has been a part of plenty of near misses in recent years.

"I would sacrifice anything to get a bit of silverware here," he said.

"There's definitely been times over the last three or four years where we should have got something and didn't quite get there, but we have the quality.

"Looking forward with the squad we have, and the players coming in next year and the younger guys that are getting more experience, if it's not this year, I think it's only going to be a matter of time."

If the side are to have any designs on ending the drought in the coming months though, a win this evening in their most unhappy of hunting grounds seems imperative.

A run of five wins from five, banking 24 points out of a possible 25 in the process, has lifted Les Kiss's men back into the play-off spots with the PRO12 finish line in sight.

But with a testing run-in over the final weeks, there is little margin for error.

"I think we've only won once in Rodney Parade since I've been at Ulster which isn't a great return," admitted the 26-year-old.

"A few boys who have played there before don't have the best memories or experiences from there but we're taking this week as just another pitch, another place to go.

"We haven't specifically targeted it and have no negative thoughts going into it at all.

"There is a tendency going to a place like that to think 'you don't want to be here' or 'it's a rubbish pitch', but we are putting that to the back of our minds and hoping to go there and play a bit of rugby.

"We watched Leinster's game against them earlier in the year and the pitch wasn't great but they still went out, backed their skill set and played well.

"It's just another pitch. It's maybe not in the best condition but we just have to get on with it."

Regardless of the locale, Marshall is looking forward to a run-out having not quite had the spring he had hoped.

Despite serving as Ireland's 24th man for the games against Scotland and Italy in the Six Nations, he didn't add to his nine international caps.

"It was the same last season, though I think it was worse because I think I was the 24th man for every game," he said.

"One of the worst things is not getting to play at all. You've missed the Ulster game on the Friday as well so you could go two or three weeks without playing at all. It can be a bit annoying at times.

"But it's the way it is in professional rugby.

"It's good to be that close and the next step is to push on and try to make it a harder decision for Joe (Schmidt)."

For now though, that focus is on making sure that his next Ulster century features a medal or two.

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