Belfast Telegraph

I've still got more in the tank: Paul Marshall

 

By Jonathan Bradley

When Paul Marshall was only a youngster, he would pore over the Guinness Book of World Records, looking for somewhere he could make his mark.

While he never quite made his way into that compendium, he will go down in history tonight against Benetton (7.05pm) as he becomes the first Ulster half-back to reach 200 caps

Having had his Ulster career overlap with the likes of Kieran Campbell, Isaac Boss and, of course, Ruan Pienaar (right, with Marshall), it would be easy to see hitting such a mark as a testament to resilience.

There were plenty of times throughout the 32-year-old's career when his path to the Ulster nine jersey was blocked by an international of some repute - indeed even tonight he will come from the bench with John Cooney again getting the nod - but for Marshall, the need to develop a resolute streak emerged long before he ever set foot in an Ulster changing room.

It was back in Methodist College in 2002 as a scrum-half looking to break into a first XV that would ultimately come a width of the post away from lifting the Schools' Cup title at Ravenhill.

He didn't start the game that day, entering proceedings only as a 70th-minute sub, and yet it was he who went on to have a pro career that now spans 11 years and counting.

"For me, I'm not the most talented player, there's a lot of guys who are better and I know that," he admitted frankly.

"Even at school I knew that, I knew then that if I wanted to be involved that I had to work as hard as I could.

"I remember then doing fitness drills and realising that working really hard isn't skill, it's attitude."

That Marshall - who is again in the final year of his deal having been handed only a one-year extension last season - is not ready to contemplate when his final Ulster outing may be should come as no surprise. He turned down offers to leave in 2013 when, still playing second fiddle to Pienaar, a real purple patch of form saw him belatedly win the first of his three Irish caps.

"I've been blessed to play the game so long and to be part of this environment, but I'm not ready for it to end yet," he said, even joking that 300 caps would only take a few more years.

"I have to keep working hard and push on and be the best that I can be.

"You always have to evaluate where you are.

"The thing that has always stuck in my mind is, would I be as passionate about another club?

"I don't know, maybe I would, maybe I wouldn't. I guess you don't know until you go. Some of the guys that have come here, you see how they've bought into this environment.

"Any time there's been an opportunity to look away for certain reasons, a few years back when I maybe could have, when Ruan was here, I was still on the edge of the Irish set-up and I didn't want to go away and miss out on that.

"My dream was to play for Ulster and Ireland, not to play rugby for X, Y, or Z.

"Unfortunately, in terms of the Ireland set-up, nothing ever came of staying, but I think if I'd gone away at that stage and ended the chance of playing for Ireland, I probably would have been really disappointed.

"You make what you think is the best decision for you, your rugby and your family. I think as you get older, you're not making the decision for yourself but the whole collective. If I wasn't enjoying it here, if I couldn't offer this organisation anything more, then maybe I would have looked to move on.

"I still get as much enjoyment out of it as I ever have done. I want to play as long as I can, as long as I can keep playing hard and working hard, I still want to be a part of it."

There are times when it seems like his high risk/high reward style goes largely unappreciated among sections of the fanbase. Some are perhaps keener to focus on when things don't go to plan, such as the blown bonus-point in Bordeaux last year, rather than some real moments of quality among his 23 Ulster tries or, indeed, the trouble his pace and tempo gives tiring defences.

One man in no doubt over his commitment to the cause though, is director of rugby Les Kiss.

"It's like he is still a 23-year-old, he springs around, never stops, he just works his socks off every training session," said the Australian. "He's a joy to have around.

"It's a testament to the type of person he is. He has had some challenges this year but he has stood up and been strong. It is only fitting this week that he will get his 200th jersey. He's a true Ulsterman, that's for sure."

Marshall wouldn't have it any other way.

Verdict

It's a new look Ulster, tonight with Christian Leali'ifano captaining the side from inside centre for a first time. With four possible debutants, three starting from the bench, it is an exciting, if untested, side that should still have too much for a Treviso side besieged by international call-ups.

Belfast Telegraph

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