Ulster can put the Cardiff Blues to the sword: Luke Marshall
Luke determined to put Ireland frustration behind him and help stuttering Kingspan side get back in mix in Cardiff after three defeats
After a November series when Joe Schmidt's men toppled New Zealand for a first time in 111 years, and backed it up with a win over Australia a week ago, Luke Marshall is perhaps one of only a select few in the squad who were left with a tinge of regret.
Having came away from last summer's South Africa tour in plenty of credit, the Ulster centre was in the wider squad for the historic night against the All Blacks in Chicago but did not travel Stateside when the panel was pared down.
He did, however, get the start at inside centre when his former provincial coach Mark Anscombe brought his new Canada side to Dublin.
And things got off to an ideal start when, with a quarter of the game gone, he crossed the whitewash for a second career Test try.
But just two minutes later his day turned on a dime, throwing an intercept that allowed Scarlets flier DTH van der Merwe in for a score.
Indeed, after the Cannucks quickly grabbed another, Marshall was probably more relieved than most when Tiernan O'Halloran went over to save the hosts the indignation of going in at half-time level pegging.
Still, the moment was mentioned by Schmidt post-match and, when the squads were named for the New Zealand rematch and the concluding autumn international against the Wallabies, Marshall was left marooned one cap shy of a double-digit total.
Indeed, even when Robbie Henshaw, Stuart Olding and, potentially, Jared Payne were unavailable last week, it was the uncapped Rory Scannell placed on stand-by while the Ballymena man prepared for Ulster's ultimately postponed clash with Zebre.
"It was a bit frustrating personally," the 25-year-old said of his November.
"Not to be involved in the bigger games, that's the way it is.
"Everyone always says it but whether you play the games or not, if you're training in camp with Joe then you come back a better player.
"That's the way you have to look at it."
And so, with a run of uninterrupted provincial games to come over the next two months, Marshall turns his attention to Ulster and the side's flagging Guinness PRO12 campaign.
For the first time since 2011/12, the last occasion when they found themselves outside the play-offs come season's end, the province have lost three consecutive league games.
With a back-to-back against Clermont to come in Europe, the predicament feels all the more acute and Marshall has called for the side to kick-start an upturn in fortunes against Cardiff Blues tonight (5.15pm kick-off).
"We've not been good enough and it's got to change," he said bluntly. "We're focused on doing that.
"If we lift our level of performance then we're good enough to start winning games.
"There's enough motivation over the past month or so from our own performances that we shouldn't need anything else," he added.
With last week's game against Zebre falling victim to a frozen pitch, today's clash against the side directly below them in the table will be Ulster's first in a month, while the likes of the returning Stuart McCloksey, Chris Henry, Louis Ludik and Darren Cave have been out of action even longer.
Marshall admitted the senior players have been missed during their absence.
"I think you forget sometimes how much you miss those guys," he reflected.
"Louis coming back in (from the bench) for example, you forget how good he was when he was our best player at the start of the season.
"Chris Henry is a massive figure in terms of leadership and what he offers on the pitch for us," he said.
"Those guys are going to help us big time and maybe that's the lift that we've been looking for over the past couple of weeks."
Unlike, arguably, Zebre, Cardiff away is not the ideal fixture to arrest an alarming run of defeats however.
Marshall is all too aware of the challenge that lies ahead in front of the Sky TV cameras.
"Definitely with Zebre's position in the league, not that we thought it would be easy, but it's a game that we could have gained a bit of confidence from," he said.
"Cardiff is a massive challenge. Their form at the start of the league, they were at the top of the table and put together some wins.
"They've maybe dropped a bit since but they've signed a lot of good players and that's definitely showing.
"They're going to have their internationals back and they're going to be very strong.
"It's a good chance for a reaction from our side and hopefully a good win against a strong team.
"It's always tough over there, they get quite a good crowd at the Arms Park.
"We'll have to be at our best to beat them."