Dubliner out to impress old friends in derby showdown
No divided loyalties for former Leinster lock as he looks for silver lining to injury-hit season
Published 11/03/2016 | 02:30
It wasn't long ago that a Leinster player would have joined Connacht solely to search for more first-team rugby. Leinster were the success story of Irish rugby, Connacht were the minnows, and the gulf in class was always reflected with the Pro12 standings every May.
This season hasn't gone according to script, and although Leinster are well in contention, second in the Pro12, Connacht are the pace-setters. But second-row Ben Marshall has joined a team that strive to bring that success to the Sportsground.
Leinster were knocked out of the Champions Cup at the pool stage, Connacht are in the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup with a winnable game away to Grenoble in April.
Leinster have a game in hand in the Pro12, where they are just two points behind Connacht, but with a massive inter-pro derby at the Sportsground on March 26 Connacht have their destiny in their own hands.
The top two get the home semi-finals, so it may not have a bearing on the final pairings, but it would be a massive statement for Connacht to finish ahead of the three-time European Cup winners. And for their former Leinster lock it would be a dream come true.
"I wish Leinster the best of luck this year but I'm here with Connacht," he says.
"I'm here to push forward for the top six, which is our goal. Once we reach that let's hope that we can make it into the play-offs. I don't care where the other clubs finish, I just want to reach our goals.
"The Sportsground has always been a tough place for Leinster to come, they haven't had many good performances there, and Connacht have always made it tough. I hope it'll be the same and I hope to be selected that week.
"I always like to think that wherever I go, or whatever team I'm in, it's a good pick. We will always be competing for silverware. Connacht have always had the big performances and this year we managed to back the performances up more consistently.
"I was definitely expecting to be pushing for top six, top four. And in Europe, getting past the pool stage, with the game against Grenoble it is a great opportunity to get some silverware too."
The 25-year-old Dublin native has had his first season in Galway interrupted by injury. He has only played five times for the first-team but has pin-pointed the end of season run-in as a time to shine after his contract extension mid-week.
But like at Leinster, Marshall knows he cannot take his involvements for granted at Connacht.
With Aly Muldowney, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Andrew Browne and Danny Qualter in the squad, Connacht are packed full of quality second-rows, and have plenty of talent coming through the academy.
Marshall, who lined out for Ireland against the Barbarians last June, is disappointed he hasn't had the opportunity to have a run at it yet. But he says that when he gets his chance he is ready to put his best foot forward.
"I'm just back from a frustrating injury. I broke my arm in Glasgow, in week two of the Pro12. That was ten or 11 weeks," he recalls.
"I made it back and I was in good condition, played the Brive home game and that went well. I had no issues, I enjoyed that game, getting into the swing of things. Getting training and getting to know the lads again.
"But the week of the Cardiff game, it might have been the last day of training. . . it was a freak thing. I got my arm caught between two guys and twisted it, and ended up cracking it again. This one was much worse, so it was the same arm, two weeks in the difference.
"I had a good doctor in Dublin and he put me on the list for the next day, the Thursday morning. I was in Dublin, got sorted out and now I'm back and feeling good, feeling strong and I feel I'm in a good place to do my best.
"I felt like I had a good pre-season here. I felt like I was putting in the work and the coaches were happy. But then obviously you can't really blame an injury. It's just one of these things that happens and it's part of the game.
"I was just trying to get the most I could out of it during the time off. Trying to learn the most I could from Pat Lam and Jimmy Duffy, and trying to put myself in a good place for when I came back and put my hand up for selection."
Marshall has come out the other side of a few tough months on the sidelines and with Connacht set for their best ever finish to a season, he wants to be a part of history. Even though he will have to fight for every minute he gets.
"There have been some great performance by the rest of the lads," he acknowledges.
"Ultan has had a great season, now up in the Irish set-up. Andrew Browne unfortunately has a shoulder injury, Quinn Roux is back now. So the competition was high when I was coming into the squad.
"Now the competition is even higher, everyone has stepped up their game. That permeates throughout the whole team, every position has a huge amount of competition for it.
"Be it second-row, be it front-row, be it anywhere in the backs. Everyone is fighting for position, everyone wants to put their hand up for selection and show Pat they are there and make the selections as hard as possible."