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Fired-up Luke Marshall ready to take Ulster on road to success

Ulster centre Luke Marshall has more reason than most to hope that the province's 2015/16 season does not come to an anti-climactic close in Swansea this afternoon.

Les Kiss's troops will travel to the Liberty Stadium to meet Ospreys (3pm) looking to stay ahead of Scarlets in the battle for the Pro12's final play-off place with Marshall out to ensure that his stand-out year has at least two more weeks to run.

If it's impossible at 25, and already three years detached from a full Ireland debut, to have a breakthrough campaign, the Ballymoney man has instead steadily restored the value of his stock over the past eight months to put a frustrating season firmly in the rear-view mirror.

This time last year, he was enduring a run marred by injury, suspension and a loss of form that saw him make his final appearance of the season as early as February.

With a contract that had only a season left to run, it must have been a confusing time for a man who wanted to be an Ulster rugby player from the time he was just about old enough to take the field with Ballymena minis.

While golf, and the feats of Tiger Woods, caught his attention growing up, it was rugby, and following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and older brother Daniel who all turned out for Ulster schools, that was always his primary focus.

To this day, ask Marshall what he would be doing without rugby, or indeed what he will do after, and vague notions of perhaps something with the business studies degree he began before the Ulster Academy became all-consuming are all he'll offer.

Given his rapid rise to the professional ranks, it wasn't something he had to consider. An Ulster regular at 20, he was starting in the Six Nations a year later.

The day that he partnered Brian O'Driscoll in Ireland's midfield against Scotland during the 2013 championship - and was presented with the great one's jersey after the game - however must have seemed quite some time ago during the months spent kicking his heels as last season played out without him.

Nowadays though, it's in O'Driscoll's outside centre position where he has flourished and a new contract - signed when a series of eye-catching performances had Premiership high-flyers Exeter reportedly ready to make an offer - will have him part of the Kingspan set-up until at least 2018 while he was back with Ireland in the spring, serving as 24th man throughout the Six Nations.

"It's been great," he says of his season-long renaissance in Ulster's effective backline.

"We're clicking as a unit. We're reading each other a lot better both defensively and with the ball.

"With Jared (Payne) at fullback and then whoever is on the wing, they're all great players to play inside. It's a good place to be at the minute.

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"It's been pleasing personally to nail down a starting shirt.

"If we win some silverware though, I'll be far happier with that than with anything I've done individually."

His own fine form, and an impressive understanding with inside centre Stuart McCloskey and out-half Paddy Jackson, has however not been enough to have Ulster sure of their spot in the semi-finals before today.

While the former Ballymena Academy pupil has taken both usual and unusual steps to switch off during the season's more intense moments - assisting his former school coach John Andrews at Rainey Old Boys and walking his dog Rosie remain favourite pastimes but he's also been known to make sure he is in front of the TV in time for Made in Chelsea - he admits the pressure has taken its toll in recent weeks.

"We're used to it now," he says of Ulster again finding themselves in a situation when only a win will do.

"To have the pressure week in, week out, it's probably been a bit more stressful than you'd like it to be.

"We'd be happier to be in Connacht, Leinster or Glasgow's position but it's been a good challenge."

That challenge continues against Ospreys this afternoon when Ulster know that they must match the points tally accrued by Scarlets against Munster to book their place in the last four.

Marshall will be looking to take care of business on his own though, not relying on their inter-provincial rivals from Limerick to provide any favours.

"I'll be focused on what we need to do," he says with confidence.

"Once you start thinking about anything else, you're asking to slip up. We'll focus on what we need to do."

Ospreys have plenty to play for themselves with their fate also tied to events in Thomond Park.

Should Scarlets triumph at Munster's expense, the door to next season's Champions Cup would be ajar for Steve Tandy's men

"It'll be a tight game; they've a lot to play for," Marshall acknowledges.

"Leinster's backline is basically full of internationals and Ospreys are the same with (Dan) Biggar, (Rhys) Webb, (Josh) Matavesi.

"We can be confident but we know how difficult it can be. They'll be pushing for a bonus point. They'll look to play and we're at our best when we play with width.

"From that point of view it's a good game to be involved in. It'll be a challenge.

"I'm sure it'll go right down to the wire. These games are the ones you want to play in. Hopefully there'll be three of them in a row."

Now that would make for a season to remember.

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