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How Luke Marshall beat injury woes to make Ulster return with a warning from his mum

Fit-again Luke gunning for some momentum

By Jonathan Bradley

Japan, America, Italy, France, Argentina and South Africa - Luke Marshall's rugby career has taken him to plenty of far-flung places since his days as a promising youngster in Ballymena, but for all the days spent in Ulster and Ireland jerseys he admits the nerves got to him ahead of his return to Eaton Park.

Having finally succumbed in early November to an Achilles problem that dogged him at the start of this season and the end of the last, the centre missed the better part of three months to round off 2017.

While there is never a good period to be on the sidelines, the ill-timed injury also cost him the chance to keep his place in Joe Schmidt's national squad for the November internationals, and presumably the Six Nations, after winning his 10th and 11th caps on tour last summer.

One positive from his relatively lengthy rehabilitation though was the chance to pull on club colours once again as his search for minutes saw him line out, and score, for Ballymena in their All-Ireland League contest with Shannon at the end of last month.

However, it was a run-out that brought with it both butterflies in the stomach and a stern warning from his mother.

"I felt as nervous as I have in a long time," he admitted. "They are struggling in the table at the minute so it was nice to go back and help out. I think it was six years since I played for them so it was a nice moment."

And was there some of the traditional 'treatment' for the pro player once again gracing the club stage?

"No, and there were actually quite a few opportunities," he laughed. "The Shannon boys went easy on me I think. That was one of the things my mum was worried about, she didn't want me playing in case of that but it went alright."

His return to the Ulster side came a week later in last Friday's straightforward thumping of the Southern Kings and, while it wasn't much of a test on the field, Marshall was pleased to come through with his body unscathed.

"I'd a run-out last week so it was good fun, but I'm sure it'll be a bit tougher this week," he said.

"I had the injury last year at the end of last season. It was to do with my Achilles but it wasn't a tear, it just kept flaring up. It was pretty bad during the Japan tour then it settled down during the pre-season.

"It wasn't perfect but then it just got worse and it got to the point where I couldn't run on it any more so I had to take time out and do rehab again to get it right.

"I'd been able to get away with it, but it wasn't 100%. You do whatever you can to get on the pitch. You're just hoping it doesn't tear but out in South Africa with Ulster I just couldn't run at that stage, and it was time to take a bit of time out."

Starting with tonight's crucial game at home to Edinburgh (7.35pm kick-off), where he again lines out alongside Stuart McCloskey in the midfield, the man who turns 27 next month is aiming for an injury-free run between now and the summer.

"I feel good now," he said. "It's been good to get a bit of game time, but obviously match fitness is totally different to normal conditioning.

"One of the things you can take out of an injury is I got a chance to get the Achilles right, doing a bit of work in the gym and getting my fitness up as well.

"I feel really good at the minute and now it's into the final push of the season.

"Also, this time of the year teams are pretty depleted, and we're reasonably lucky that we don't have too many guys away, so you can almost just get on with your business and get some opportunities.

"I feel good and am looking forward to the rest of the season."

For the time being, that means with Ulster, even if Ireland have developed a pressing need for outside centres throughout this Six Nations.

With Marshall's Ulster team-mate Jared Payne having missed the entire season to date, Robbie Henshaw's campaign seemingly over thanks to the injury he sustained in the win over Italy and Garry Ringrose not expected to make his return for Leinster against Scarlets tomorrow, 13 certainly has been unlucky for the men in green of late.

Former Ulster player, and Fivemiletown native, Chris Farrell seems likely to get the nod against Wales in Dublin next week, but Marshall is not seeing this as a chance missed.

"Not so far," he said when asked if Schmidt had been in contact to ask of his progress.

"There's obviously a lot of competition for the 13 jersey. There's a lot of players putting their hands up, Chris Farrell of Munster and Bundee (Aki) has come through. It's frustrating that I wasn't available but I might not have been in the squad anyway."

Ulster will hope that Ireland's loss is their gain tonight.

Verdict: Ulster

Jono Gibbes’ second game in charge is undoubtedly a big one and there’s no denying the impact of this clash on the final shake-up in Conference B. Ulster must make home advantage, as well as their relatively sparse Six Nations representation, count tonight and create a gap between themselves and Edinburgh in the table.

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