'I learned a lot on tour but I was disappointed not to win an Ireland cap'
Boyhood Wales fan Kieran Marmion out to make up for summer frustration
WHEN the Irish squad assemble at their Maynooth base on Monday, the collection of accents will be something to behold.
Between the South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians, Ulstermen and the various characters from Cork, Dublin, Louth, Athlone and the rest who take the training field, it will be a cacophony that sums up the diverse routes taken to the top of the rugby tree.
One voice Joe Schmidt is likely to be listening out for will be the Welsh tones of Connacht's standout player of the season, Kieran Marmion.
Born near London, raised in Brecon and schooled near Blackpool, he is now the pride of Galway, from where his grandparents travelled for a new life in England decades ago.
Loughrea was never forgotten by the Marmions, even if the younger Kieran sported a red jersey in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons in his formative days as he started out alongside twin brother Liam on the colourful journey that leads him to Allianz Park in north London this afternoon.
When you ask 21-year-old Marmion about those who played a role in his development, his father Mick is top of that list. A former centre with today's opponents Saracens during the 1980s, he passed away last summer after an illness and so the Marmion clan will gather in the stands today for a bittersweet occasion.
It was one of Mick's friends who suggested the talented teenage scrum-half might try out for the Exiles when he was playing U-16 rugby at the Cardiff Blues academy and commuting to Kirkham Grammar School where his dad and mother Sandra both worked.
"My dad came to all my games, took me to all of my trials and stuff, and when I was at Cardiff he would take me to training on Wednesdays and Fridays, so he was the biggest influence," Marmion explains as he sips coffee in the offices behind the Clan Terrace at the Sportsground.
"When I was growing up I was supporting Wales, but I started coming over here when I was 16 through the Exiles. One of my dad's friends got me involved in that, said I might enjoy it and I did. The first game was actually out here against Connacht U-18s. After that game was when I got called up for the Irish Youths camp, so I started from there."
While his rivals for Ireland spots were training regularly and preparing the right ways, the Exiles was a slightly more motley existence, like something from the old amateur days.
"The lads came from all over the place, from Wales, England, Scotland," Marmion said. "We didn't get to train, we'd meet up on the day of the game. Train in the morning and play in the afternoon, so it was quite individual.
"It's almost like a Barbarians thing, we'd turn up and the games weren't too bad, we lost to Connacht and Munster and then at U-19 I think we beat Ulster and lost to Leinster.
"I think it was more about putting in performances and catching the eye of the selectors, there was an opportunity there to play for Ireland at underage level so it wasn't really about results."
Through the Ireland Youths he graduated into the U-20s set-up, and his team-mate and now Connacht half-back partner Jack Carty mentioned his name to Nigel Carolan, the head of the province's Academy, and he was offered a year to show what he was made of.
He took a couple of semesters out from the sports development course he was studying at the University of Wales Institute and tried his luck at professional rugby.
After a year he deferred coming back and eventually he had to drop out altogether, such was his rate of progress.
Today, Marmion makes his 45th appearance for the first team three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday. That only three of those caps have come off the bench tells its own story.
Eric Elwood and Pat Lam have backed him to the hilt and he has repaid them in spades. Man of the match against Saracens at home and on that historic day when they beat Toulouse away, he has arguably been their most important player and has committed his future to the province by signing a contract until 2016.
By then, it is likely that he will be contesting the Ireland No 9 shirt with Conor Murray, even if his international ambitions haven't quite gone to plan just yet.
Picked for the summer tour, he ended up being the third wheel behind Isaac Boss and Paul Marshall and returned home the only player not to be capped. Overlooked in November, even if he was called up to train for a day, his form saw him back in Kildare for the pre-Christmas camp and included in Schmidt's 44-man squad for the Six Nations this week.
"The tour was a great learning experience, but obviously it was disappointing," he reflects on his June trip to Houston and Toronto. "Everyone went over looking to play and not to get a cap meant I came away disappointed, even if I did learn some things.
"I chatted to Les (Kiss) before the games and tried to learn the plays and stuff, and just before the last game he told me I wasn't going to be playing this one and he said 'I'm really sorry', but he had to do the best for the team and they needed a result. Winning the two games was the most important thing.
"It's good to train with the best players in Ireland, it is good to be around them. Joe is good, he's very detailed and looks into the smallest things to improve me. Off the pitch, he's very different. He has a lot of time for you. The detail he looks at, there's no hiding place.
"He's someone I want to work with -- looking at the players he brought through at Leinster, you can see he has an understanding of what is needed to get through."
Sitting through the pre-Christmas review session as Schmidt picked through the wreckage of the final moments against New Zealand was a strange experience for those who weren't involved, but Marmion says it was an eye-opening one as it showed the difference the little things can make at the top level.
A few weeks before that review session, he had been part of the team that held out heroically in Toulouse for Connacht's greatest day, but when the French side came to Galway six days later he had to come off a drip and play 80 minutes as a bug ripped through the Westerners' squad.
He lost 5kg and was sick for a further three weeks, but despite the four-time champions' win, Connacht are still in with a hope as they travel to Saracens' 4G pitch at the Allianz.
"At the time, we realised we probably weren't going to be in a better position to beat Toulouse in Toulouse," he said of making history in the south of France. "They hadn't lost there in like five years, so to get a result came from everybody realising that. Everyone was 100pc focused, the commitment was huge.
"It's the same this week, we have to go over there and give it everything. There's a week off afterwards, so nobody will be holding back. We're going over there to win."
That would put Connacht further on to the map and will probably put them into the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals, while Marmion will be at the heart of things driving them on.
Win or lose, he hooks up with Ireland on Monday for another shot at a cap and given his form, it can't be long until he gets one.
SARACENS -- A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor, B Barritt, D Strettle; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, S Brits, M Stevens; S Borthwick (capt), GKruis; B Vunipola, K Brown, E Joubert. Reps: J George, R Barrington, J Johnston, A Hargreaves, J Wray, N de Kock, O Farrell, C Wyles.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White; M Swift, C Clarke (capt); A Browne, J Heenan, J Muldoon. Reps: H Harris Wright, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Kearney, G Naoupu, P O'Donohoe, D Leader, T O'Halloran.
REF -- L Hodges (Wales)
Guide to the game
Form guide: Saracens WWWWL, Connacht LWLLW
Betting: Saracens 1/200, Connacht 20/1, Draw 60/1
Handicap: Saracens (-22) 10/11, Connacht (+22) 10/11, Draw (+22.0) 20/1
Jake Heenan (Connacht)
The highly rated openside (above) needs to do everything he can get away with to disrupt and slow Saracens ball. On a super-quick 4G pitch, the Premiership leaders are made to score tries, and the New Zealander needs to give Connacht's defence time to realign to be in with a chance.
THREE THINGS CONNACHT MUST DO
Bring the power
Saracens are not a small team, but Toulouse exposed their lack of power last weekend and Connacht will need to raise their efforts in contact to the levels they reached in France last month to have any chance. Stop the English side at the gainline while getting over it themselves, and they will have a chance.
Use their own runners
Much will be made of the pitch and the advantage it gives the hosts, but with Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Fionn Carr in their backline, Pat Lam's side have runners who can do damage on the fast track if given space.
Play in the right areas
The selection of Dan Parks is a nod to the ex-Scotland international's experience and, while he might not be the most exciting No 10 in world rugby, he can control a game when needed. Connacht need to play as much of the game as possible in Saracens territory and back their set-piece to deliver.
SARACENS V CONNACHT,
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