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Ulster's Luke Marshall has drive to be a winner in Cardiff Blues PRO12 clash

Marshall eager to improve on his shaky start

By Michael Sadlier

The frustration was self-evident. Luke Marshall had tried to get to the pace of the game but it had frustratingly always remained that few steps ahead of him and, inevitably, he was called ashore in the second half.

It pretty much summed up his night against Zebre. Then, again, these things happen and he has still come a long way for someone who is only 23, though that thought is of little consolation to Marshall, who knows he must do better.

So there is nothing else for it but to keep working hard towards the goal of securing a starting place in the ultra-competitive Ulster midfield while, hopefully, managing to catch the all-seeing eyes of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

He last played for Ireland in June in the first Test in Argentina before being left out for the second encounter.

Schmidt would doubtless have had something to say about the first-half chance Marshall had last week against Zebre when he barrelled over the line, only to lose the ball while trying to touch it down.

As it happens, the play had been called back anyway, but it just seemed emblematic of the centre's evening.

"I went to fend with my right and had the ball in my left and a hand came in and dislodged it," he says sheepishly.

"I felt a bit rusty with my form and struggled to get into the game, but physically I felt good and I'm looking forward to getting another opportunity," the six times-capped Ireland international adds while clearly being keener to discuss tomorrow night's game with Cardiff Blues on their artificial pitch at the Arms Park.

"There's always a chance that your form could dip but you have to accept that with such pushing for positions here, you have to really try to be on the top of your game every week," he adds.

Ulster's midfield is certainly a case in point and should everyone be fully fit then it's a case of pairing it down to two from Marshall, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey and potentially Louis Ludik, who can also play there.

And it's not just a case of specialising in one position either as Cave, primarily an outside centre, has had to also play at 12 to get into the team while it is also put to Marshall that he might just have to fit in at number 13 (outside centre) this week if Cave fails to beat his rib injury and Olding is selected as inside centre.

"Yes, with Stuarty (Olding) there, there's a chance I could play at 13 as well," Marshall says. "There is a lot of competition so you have to take your opportunity when it comes.

"I'm looking forward to getting back to really fight for the 12 jersey," he adds while bringing his primary position to the fore though not to make any point, simply because he knows it is there where his physicality is best deployed.

On the first weekend of action, at the Scarlets, he came on for the injured Payne and while the impact Nick Williams made from the bench was widely, and rightly, lauded, Marshall also put himself about with some direct and muscular carries while playing outside Olding in the number 13 position.

It might just be that he gets a start at outside centre at the Blues but whatever the decision, he knows that greater precision and accuracy are the watchwords for this week.

With the return game with the Italians in Parma awaiting after Cardiff, it is essential that Ulster manage to produce a more complete performance at the Arms Park – where they lost last season – and in Italy, where they just about won on their last two league visits.

"One of the things we've been talking about is that we'd created a number of chances but just didn't finish them.

"This week we want to finish those chances," adds Marshall.

Which leads us towards the impact interim coach Les Kiss has had on the squad and how Neil Doak – tipped to be the new head coach – has been functioning within the temporary arrangement.

"Our training would be a lot sharper now," Marshall says of the Kiss factor. "We'd talk a lot less on the pitch and the detail is much more precise now and more intense.

"But Doakie's had a big role to play anyway over the last few seasons and a lot of the way we play is down to him so in a way nothing has changed too much on the pitch.

"He's (Doak) learned a bit off Les and I think with Joe (Schmidt) coming in last year (as Ireland head coach), Les has learned a bit off Joe as well and he's brought that with him into the Ulster set-up."

And so, the plan for tomorrow?

"We have to focus on getting results and, for me, I want to get may hands on the ball early and get into it from the start."

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