Home debut can't come quick enough

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

When Luke Marshall’s dad walked into his kitchen the day after his son’s debut in Murrayfield, he looked at the table and shook his head in disbelief. His boy had laid out the green number 12 jersey from a day before, alongside the number 13 jersey which Brian O’Driscoll, in a typically classy touch, had given him. Richard Marshall shook his head and smiled some more.

O’Driscoll initially gave Marshall his jersey in the dressing-room afterwards before the customary post-match exchange with their Scottish counterparts, but after it was laundered, it was returned to O’Driscoll. “I thought I’d lost it,” admits Marshall, “but the next Wednesday Brian came in at dinner time back at the Carton and gave it to me.”

Luke had already emulated his grandfather Reid, his father Richard and his older brother Daniel by playing for Ulster schools. But for a family steeped in rugby, this was something else. He and his dad chatted about the day before and not only reflected on Luke finishing the game with another legend, Ronan O’Gara, playing inside him as well as O’Driscoll outside him, but with a Lions’ back three of Keith Earls, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald.

Two days ago in the Carton House, having turned 22 last Sunday, Marshall was still in a boyish, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming mode. Yet, amongst pretty much ticking every box as an inside centre, he also has a sound temperament.

He can become a little nervous on days of games, but in Edinburgh he was afflicted more by excitement than nerves. “The night before the match I didn’t sleep that well. But it was the buzz. There were no nerves. The only time the nerves start hitting me was when I came out of the hotel and all the Irish fans were outside the Balmoral. The streets were lined and then when the anthems were played the nerves came out again. But as soon as the game starts it’s fine.”

It helps when you make a couple of line breaks off passes from your long-time pal Paddy Jackson, the only blemish aside from a result he still can’t fathom being a failure to hit Craig Gilroy with a try-scoring pass off the first. “I was aware that Tim Visser was coming behind Craig and I thought if I make him check with the pass Visser could catch him, so it had to be in front of him. But I still should have made it. I was disappointed with myself.”

Shakes his head

Since he began playing for Ballymena mini rugby at the age of six this is all he’s ever wanted to do. Ask him if he hadn’t been a rugby player what would he imagine himself doing and he simply shakes his head.

Competing with two older brothers, Patrick and Daniel, toughened him from an early age too. “Yeah, that’s what my dad always says to me. When I was playing at school and boys who would go down easy on the pitch he would always say ‘they mustn’t have older brothers’.”

It was also inspiring to see Daniel play for Ulster schools against Leinster schools in Ravenhill when Marshall was still in upper sixth class. “I can remember just being so proud of him, and sort of saying, ‘that’s what I want to do’.”

He himself would also play for the Irish schools and Irish under-20s, although outshone by Jackson, his Methody counterpart at outhalf. But, having come under the wing of John Andrews, his coach both at Ballymena Academy and Ballymena, he doesn’t particularly envy Jackson’s schools career.

“He always wanted to play running rugby, and he made us enjoy it, whereas what I hear from the Belfast schools and Methody is that they’re too serious. You get a lot of boys who finish school rugby and just don’t want to play, whereas in Ballymena everyone enjoyed it so much.”

Kicking, he admits, was “a last resort” before he was eventually encouraged to switch to 12 when joining the Ulster Academy. A breakthrough second season out of school was rewarded with a full-time contract, but a poor first outing last season for Ulster was compounded by fracturing a cheekbone and then damaging his ankle ligaments. His next return game was with the Ulster Ravens in the semi-finals of the British Irish Cup at home to Munster.

Revived his confidence

“I just had a terrible game,” he recalls. His form spiralled and at the end of the season there was talk of a loan, maybe to an English championship club. Instead Ian Whitten signed for Exeter and Marshall thought to himself “I still believe I’m good enough to do this”. A strong pre-season revived his confidence, as did Ulster’s unbeaten early run of games.

The tragic death of Nevin Spence, along with Spence’s brother and his father in mid-September, is still something that Marshall understandably struggles to discuss publicly. “I played Ulster schools with him. I would have known him all the way through,” he says, his voice quietening and head lowering as for once he loses his engaging smile. “It was crazy so it was.”

It felt intrusive to pry any further, so we reverted to the influence of Mark Anscombe, whose arrival had heightened Marshall’s feeling that everyone was starting with a clean slate.

With the Kiwi’s arrival came a renewed emphasis on basics, and a demand for the highest of standards. Having been a fan last May in Twickenham for the Heineken Cup final, Marshall was playing for Ireland in a non-Test against Fiji at Thomond Park last November and following injuries to both Gordon D’Arcy and Paddy Wallace, has now been suddenly thrust into the front line for province and country.

As his four European appearances have all been off the bench, he has started more Six Nations matches than Heineken Cup games. He is always questioning himself, always looking at other 12s and asking himself what they might do better than him. Ironically, Wesley Fofana is one he has watched admiringly. “I just want to be the best I can be.”

Now comes his home debut. His dad, mum, brother and girlfriend will be amongst the crowd, and the loss to Scotland has only whetted his appetite.

“I enjoyed the Scotland game in a strange way as it was the first cap, despite the result. Playing with Brian and Rog, is something you’ll never forget, but after getting my first cap out of the way, now it’s just business.”

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