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How Ulster are taken out of their comfort zone in training to inspire top performances, explains Luke Marshall

 

Finely tuned: Luke Marshall says intense training is contributing to better performances
Finely tuned: Luke Marshall says intense training is contributing to better performances
Luke Marshall

By Michael Sadlier

When Luke Marshall mentions being taken out of anything that might resemble a comfort zone, the natural inclination is to wonder just what he means.

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A seemingly obvious enough clue would appear to have been last Friday's closing minutes of the first half when Connacht put together around 35 phases in close proximity to Ulster's line but just couldn't find a way through.

White shirts made hit after hit and actually drained the energy from Connacht as well as gradually eroding their confidence that a score just had to come.

That they also managed to do this with Rob Herring being sin-binned also made their achievement all the more worthy of admiration even if the westerners panicked somewhat in mostly trying to bludgeon their way over instead of calmly moving the ball to the space on the edges.

It was impressive stuff from Ulster and, interestingly, Marshall was not to be found referencing what happened on the night. Rather, the 28-year-old centre dug out a nugget from what goes on during the intensive bursts of training being done under Dan McFarland's gaze.

"The way we're training at the minute and the levels we're setting are…," begins the Ulster stalwart who wins his 136th cap tonight, before bringing more clarity to his explanation, "well, like sometimes, say, if we're doing a defence session some of the targets nearly are unrealistic because we're trying to take ourselves out of our comfort zone.

"Jared (Payne) would be pretty keen on that.

"He'd be happy if we come out of a defence session feeling nearly uncomfortable, nearly feeling a bit low on confidence because we've been tested so much rather than, I suppose, nearly strolling through it and finding it easy.

"Dan has done great work with us and he has sort of instilled that confidence through work-rate and competitiveness at training and it is certainly seeping into our match day performances."

Indeed. The discomfort experienced on the training park can clearly translate into something rather special when it comes to doing it live and while they are put through the wringer so that this inner steel can be accessed during games, there is another side to galvanising Ulster's currently robust-looking team spirit which has brought about 18 unbeaten games at the Kingspan.

"I think it is something down to the culture Dan (McFarland) has tried to instil since he has been here," Marshall explains.

"Sort of corny as it sounds, playing for the badge, and playing for the province, he has really bought into that and pushed us to buy into it.

"I think Dan has done it really well."

The alterations in emphasis have has also clicked with Marshall who is playing some of the best rugby of a lengthy, and often injury-hit, career at his home province which began way back in October 2010.

His midfield partnership with Stuart McCloskey has blossomed with the pair seemingly comfortable in their different roles with Marshall viewing the bigger picture when it comes to reading the game from outside centre.

"Both Stu and myself have developed a good relationship over the last few years from playing together and this season as well, we have put a good few games together.

"We read each other reasonably well and it certainly helps," says the 11-times capped Ireland player who but for injury issues would have surely had more games at international level.

As for tonight's match, he makes all the usual noises about it being a big challenge and how a strong Munster will put it up to them before making a policy statement on where Ulster need to be.

"One of the things that pushes you is when you look at your provincial rivals.

"Leinster are so far ahead at the minute and we are still climbing up the hill.

"They're at the top, they are setting the bar and we are trying to chase it."

Ten seasons in since his debut, the Ballymena native is a senior player of considerable importance and Marshall seems, rightly, comfortable with where he finds himself.

As he maintains, "You gain experience not just from playing games but from being in the system.

"If I was giving one piece of advice it would be not to take anything for granted. Rugby is pretty fickle so enjoy it while you have it.

"I am probably enjoying my rugby now more than ever.

"Not that I am old, but as you get a bit closer towards the end of your career you always think it could end at any stage and you've got to enjoy it."

Marshall has missed only two games so far in this campaign which has been indicative of his fitness and form rather than McFarland necessarily lacking alternatives with both James Hume and now Angus Curtis sidelined while Matt Faddes has been in and out of the side.

"There have been a few stages earlier on in the season when Dan has said to me 'do you want a rest?'

"But I've always been keen to play," he says before referring to the virtual year he missed out on after suffering an ACL injury in May 2018.

"One of the benefits of having a serious injury before is that I effectively got a year of rest and I think that has enabled me to play a bit longer this season and play more repeat games.

"Having some time off also gives you a bit more appreciation for rugby as well and when you get back you don't want to lose it again."

No comfort zones here then.

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