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Marshall caught in two minds

Luke Marshall could so easily be caught in two minds across a twin conundrum in this RBS 6 Nations championship.

First, Ulster's flourishing centre must bide his time behind legendary Ireland pairing Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll while also aiming to oust one or other.

Then the 22-year-old from Ballymoney must respect the traditions of line-breaking midfield play, while also shouldering the modern playmaking responsibility of any top-class pivot.

In a position where balance is everything, the four-cap three-quarter has his work cut out.

O'Driscoll will retire at the end of the season, but not before breaking Ronan O'Gara's all-time Ireland caps record of 128.

Respect suggests younger rivals must salute the great man's final hour.

"I think you're definitely trying to break in there," Marshall told Press Association Sport, of the fight for starting berths in Ireland's midfield.

"It's in your head that if your provincial form is good enough then you can push extremely hard.

"But there's still an element of biding your time as well, because you realise just how good a job Gordon and Brian have done for a decade and more.

"Their form is still strong together, as they showed against New Zealand, so there's still an element in my mind that I'll push hard and work hard, but I do also need to bide my time a bit as well."

Marshall knows full well the duties of the modern-day 12 revolve around a game of both numbers and names.

International rugby is almost becoming an exercise in conjuring as many playmaking roles as possible.

The All Blacks now ask locks to head a diamond midfield formation to direct early phase-play, while England have employed their full-back as auxiliary pivot.

Ever since Cardiff sacrificed a forward to create the second centre in the late 19th century, the hemispheres have been at odds.

The Kiwis called that extra backline man the second five-eighth, the Northern Hemisphere selecting the less fractionally-conscious but equally pragmatic inside centre.

Former New Zealand schoolteacher Joe Schmidt knows the history, and wants some classic Kiwi incision in his Ireland midfield.

"It can be a tough balance, at times you've still got to be direct, physical and carry up the middle and make big hits in defence," said Marshall.

"But I think the way the game's going, the more of a second distributor you can be at 12 the better it's going to be for the team.

"So striking the right balance is a challenge, being physical and meeting that challenge, but also being able to bring the backline into the game in attack.

"Definitely you can help shape the way the team attacks, so you've got to be able to offer yourself up as another outlet for the fly-half.

"And hopefully as a pair you can start to dictate the play a bit if that works well.

"And that's something I definitely enjoy about the role.

"I think that is Joe's style too, coming from New Zealand, that's what he likes.

"He wants his playmakers able to put a good, flat pass that brings other players onto the ball and can create holes for others to exploit.

"You've got to be more than just a battering ram essentially, maybe I should start calling myself a second five-eighth!

"In all seriousness though it's something they've been clear about on what they want, and something I'm working hard and still trying to improve in my game all the time."

D'Arcy and O'Driscoll wrestled back the world record for most-capped centre duo from Kiwi pair Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith in the autumn, with Smith on sabbatical.

Nonu might be typified by highlights reels of big hits and broken tackles, but the Auckland Blue wrecking ball has added a pinpoint tactical boot to his wiles over the years.

Marshall will aim to add as many of these elements to his game as possible, but will still also continue to pick the brains of Ulster mentor Paddy Wallace.

Just like 34-year-old Wallace, Marshall started as a fly-half and shifted gradually further into midfield.

Marshall sees no better yardstick for his progress than his 30-cap team-mate, who helped Ireland lift the Grand Slam in 2009.

"I suppose for me Paddy Wallace has been a big influence on my game," said Marshall.

"When I was coming through into the squad he was a similar style of player to me.

"He had been playing at 10 and moved out to 12 which is a similar path I took, so I tried to base my game around being a second distributor at 12.

"So I think he's been a massive influence on me, he's always keen to help, and even just being up close and watching guys of that calibre day-in day-out you can learn a huge amount."


From Belfast Telegraph