Marshall ready to lay down the law with his unique free-spirited attitude

Inside centre Luke Marshall, who will be making his Test debut against Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday.

Inside centre Luke Marshall, who will be making his Test debut against Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday.


RUGBY:His chin is down, his eyes are up. His cheeks are smacked red and his blond hair unkempt. Luke Marshall looks like he has been plucked by Declan Kidney from a queue at the tuck shop in Ballymena Academy. All he is missing is the crooked tie and a stroppy scowl.

At 21, Marshall’s schoolboy features define his looks and while he seems naturally insouciant to the current attention, being asked to talk the game instead of play, it is unfamiliar ground for the player stepping into Gordon D’Arcy’s shoes.

Marshall speaks softly with a lilt that is more country than Belfast and when he feels he’s said enough glances across at Declan Kidney and Jamie Heaslip for more authoritative support. The cavalry arrive on cue.

“I’ve complete faith in the lads coming in doing their job and doing it well, and playing with that passion and emotion that they’ve shown in training,” said Heaslip.

Not quite 6ft tall but at over 15st, Marshall has bulk. In addition to that he has feet and he can pass and he has balance and he plays a brave defensive game. But maybe more important than all, he has a free spirit.

“I remember him trying two left-footed drop goals from the 10-metre line against me,” piped Paddy Jackson. “He didn’t get them though. You’re asking if he is free-spirited, he definitely was.”

Moved outside

A one-time number 10 at the same time as Jackson, it was the Ballymena player that moved outside, not his Ulster teammate. Marshall suggests the shift was the natural order being established. He was physically more able and he saw the abundance of good outhalves determined to squeeze the position. You’d have to hope Ulster coach Neil Doak, who suggested the move, also saw that the Marshall package would gain greater rewards in the contact area one place out.

“They are reasonably similar 10 and 12, especially the way we played,” he said. “It was easy enough moving out to 12. I maybe just had to concentrate a little bit more defensively. Initially I wanted to say at 10 because I’d played there since the start. But I knew he (Jackson) was pretty special, so I was happy to move to stay in the team.”

Most players would go to extremes to play and Marshall is no different. In a passing, disinterested way he declares that he has been playing with a broken back for the past number of years. A fall from a tree when he was younger, he thinks, caused the fracture. “Broke a bone in my back in my last year at school. It’s just one of the wee wings off the vertebrae at the bottom. Just a small little bone,” he says.

“I think it happened when I was 12-13. I had a bit of back trouble at 18 or 17 and I had a scan on it and it was a broken bone that had been done years ago. Basically I work on my core (fitness) and whatnot and it’s when it hits the nerve that is when the pain comes . . . Fingers crossed.”

Chancy pick

Kidney’s decision took making, his faith in took believing. Easier options than Marshall were available and while he has entered the rugby psyche as a chancy pick he was always approaching from a long way out. The God-fearing regulars at Ravenhill have been claiming him as a redeemer for some time and even Les Kiss, Kidney’s assistant, was bathing him in flattery last November.

“He can pass the ball well, he can pass short and long,” said Kiss. “He has good footwork, and as Gert (Smal) and I recognised often from when we’ve gone up to watch Ulster play or train, he carries his body weight well. Luke is a good solid lad, plus his agility is nice. Usually when we talk about agility, it is in attack but his agility in defence is very good too.”

On Sunday he will be out of the bag and in the court of public opinion. But the Irish camp has been a comfortable place for him. He has opened eyes there.

“I didn’t realise how talented Luke was. Myself and Kearns (Rob Kearney) were talking about him at training the other day,” said Keith Earls earlier this week.

And Marshall, he just wants his hands on the ball. “I like to make a few decisions, take the heat off the outhalf,” he said. He doesn’t say much but it sings.

Ferris likely tomiss rest of series More ankle worrries

Stephen Ferris’s ongoing ankle injury now appears likely to keep him sidelined for the remainder of the Six Nations championship and he may also be unavailable for Ulster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens on April 6th.

If the 27-year-old fails to get back to match fitness soon, a place on the Lions squad for their summer tour to Australia may also be in jeopardy.

The Ulster flanker underwent surgery in December to repair ankle tendon damage sustained in a RaboDirect Pro12 match against Edinburgh.

He was reviewed on Tuesday as part of his ongoing rehabilitation programme. But during the review it was discovered that, although he had made excellent progress, some minor issues remain.

As a result, the specialist medical staff treating him are considering several options to ensure that he makes a “full and complete return to play”, an Ulster statement explained yesterday.

No specific details were revealed but the problem is not believed to be career-threatening. A decision on a course of action will be made in the coming weeks.

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