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Ulster's Paul Marshall says Ruan Pienaar has made him a better player

By Michael Sadlier

You could forgive Paul Marshall for possibly not feeling quite as outraged as most other observers regarding Ruan Pienaar being refused a contract extension at Ulster beyond this season.

After all, the long-serving 31-year-old has largely had to play second fiddle to Pienaar since the Springbok World Cup winner's arrival in 2011 and Marshall has had to put up with being sprung from the bench or getting starts when the first choice scrum-half is either not around, injured or having a run-out at 10.

And just to throw in extra spice, Marshall's contract is also due up at season's end as well so, if he remains on to probably see out his career here, a Pienaar-free Ulster side might yet be an added bonus for the Belfast man.

Maybe but, in fairness, taking on board the IRFU's reasons for Pienaar's departure - the national succession policy - it would seem that the province are rather more likely to be bringing in someone who will potentially play reasonably regularly for Ireland while, at this stage in his career, Marshall might not be adding much to his three national appearances.

Anyway, when the question about Pienaar is thrown his way, Marshall, not for the first time, answers this tricky one as genuinely as he can.

"Everyone knows he's contributed massively to this organisation," he says of Pienaar.

"And am I a better player having played and trained alongside him? I think so."

And of his own future? Marshall, who will make his 177th Ulster appearance against Connacht on Friday, can only opt for a 'wait and see' approach.

"Bryn (Cunningham) and Les (Kiss) look after that," he says of the contract issues. "As players you just keep your head down.

"From my point of view you always just concentrate on playing and getting on with what you can do and everything else looks after itself.

"For me we'll see what happens and I presume with the ruling (the national succession plan) it will be interesting to see what they come up and whether it's other players or just how the layout will be next year," explains Marshall.

Of course it hasn't helped that last Friday's arm-wrestle of a win over the Ospreys was Marshall's first start of the season though - five games in - this was largely down to the rib injury he picked up after coming on late in Ulster's opening win over the Dragons at the start of last month.

And he might have actually expected to be playing regularly at this time of the season had Pienaar been with the Boks in the Rugby Championship.

"Picking up an innocuous enough injury at the end of the first game and then having to watch for a few weeks was hard, but I enjoyed playing last week and it was good to just get back playing," he says.

"Whenever you're watching from the sidelines, and not involved at all, you feel a bit like you're not part of it so it's nice to be back involved."

As for taking on last season's champions Connacht - who won their first game last week - and making it six wins from six for leaders Ulster, Marshall is careful to avoid straying away from praising the westerners.

"They're the reigning champions for a reason and last season they were fantastic," he says though without bringing up Ulster's impressive record against Pat Lam's squad.

"This season they've maybe had to find their feet a bit more but they got their season kick-started last week so we know it's going to be tough down there."

Meanwhile, Iain Henderson is hoping to be fit for Friday night, following his late withdrawal from last week's narrow win over the Ospreys due to an elbow issue while Luke Marshall is believed to have passed his return to play protocols after picking up a concussion against the Scarlets and could also be in the frame to return against Connacht.

Belfast Telegraph


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