Luke Marshall: I've hit back after staying sharp during injury
There was a time not so long ago that the 2018-19 campaign looked likely to be a lost one for Luke Marshall.
Instead, away to Glasgow this evening (7.35pm kick-off), he'll be playing his third knockout game of the campaign.
Having sustained an ACL injury in the final game of last season, the play-off with Ospreys to secure a place in the Champions Cup, the centre with 11 Ireland caps spent 10 months on the sidelines before making a dramatic try-scoring return from the bench in the European quarter-final against Leinster in the Aviva Stadium back in March.
While his score ultimately couldn't help Ulster to the last four of Europe that day, he's put his injury woes firmly behind him since, playing 80 minutes against both Glasgow and Edinburgh before missing only 10 minutes of the Guinness PRO14 quarter-final against Connacht thanks to an HIA.
Looking like he hasn't missed a beat after the long injury, Marshall credits a different approach to his lengthy rehab stint for maintaining his sharpness.
"Normally when you're injured you're just doing your weights and rehab and you don't do any skills," he said.
"But this year with Dan Soper coming in (as skills coach), he has done a lot of work with injured guys and their skills.
"Normally if I was coming back from injury my passing would be one thing that would be rusty, but that's been a lot different this year. I felt when I came back my skills were probably better than when I got injured. We were encouraged a bit more to go to the meetings and reviews, so you are still trying to learn from the games.
"You just feel a bit more a part of it. When you are stuck in the gym and doing rehab with a long injury you can feel quite separated from the squad. You are supposed to be a rugby player but you are miles from doing that. It can be tough.
"This year with Dan it has been good fun as well and that makes things a lot easier.
"I got lucky. I think I got playing in that quarter-final just by default, there were so many injuries, I was probably the only man left standing.
"From watching the boys since the start of the season it's been amazing how much we've kicked on from last season.
"Everyone wanted to move on and it's been great for squad development to see so many young boys coming through and really playing well, putting their hands up for selection."
Those young players are one part of the turnaround, while another, in the mind of Marshall, is the work of first-year head coach Dan McFarland.
"Dan has installed a good culture," reflected Marshall.
"Not that things were terrible last year or in years gone by, but we're probably harder working.
"Guys are putting the extras in, in the video room or at the end of sessions, or even in rehab in the gym. In the past maybe guys were doing extras just to be seen to be doing them but now they know it's going to make a difference to the squad and the team.
"I think that's a big difference. The other thing is giving the young guys their chance. There's been so many that have been given an opportunity and they've taken it. They've got to be on top of their game, it brings a competitive edge."
They'll need that edge and then some tonight, at a ground where they have won just once in the PRO14 and were beaten 30-7 only six weeks ago.
Off the back of that sole game, Glasgow are the only side to boast a 100% record against the province this season, but Marshall is expecting a different type of contest.
"This is a good chance to hopefully get revenge," he said.
"It should give us motivation in that we didn't perform well as a team all round, but we know we're a better side than that and going over there we don't have anything to lose.
"They've come out top of their conference and obviously they had a good win over us last time, so we will have the underdog tag, but we're happy with that. We know if we play well and get close to hitting that same level as we did against Leinster in the quarter-final we're probably good enough for anyone. Hopefully we can hit that level (tonight)."
Do that and the side can start dreaming of a Celtic Park final next weekend. For Marshall, having made his debut in 2011 and at the youngest end of the generation who so often came close but not close enough to silverware, the thought of a title remains tantalising.
"You always find yourself, just whenever you have a bit of free time, thinking about what it would be like to lift a trophy over in Celtic Park," he said.
"You've got to, that's the motivation at the end of the day. We're not thinking past the semi-final but you have to imagine how good it would be.
"It's so long since we've won a trophy here, and it's been a while since we've even been in a position to be close to it. It would be incredible, but there's a tough game coming and even if we win that there's a tough opponent waiting in the final so we're a way away yet."
Still, after the year he's had, there's no harm in a spot of daydreaming.
Match verdict: Glasgow
The first year under Dan McFarland has already been a massive success but it'd be a huge ask to win at Glasgow for any side. If the visitors put in a strong performance, they'll go into the summer with cause for optimism.