Thursday 17 August 2017

Marmion hopes star will start to rise in land of opportunity

Ireland scrum-half Kieran Marmion at Carton House. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ireland scrum-half Kieran Marmion at Carton House. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Even dust when accumulated eventually makes a mountain. So the Japanese say anyway.

Four years ago when Ireland last toured stateside - they will follow to Japan this time around - Kieran Marmion wondered whether JJ Watt might have had a better chance of pulling on a green jersey than he had.

The NFL star shared a brief, passionate and seemingly mutually satisfying crush with the Irish rugby squad back then.

The banter was only mighty; all the while, a 21-year-old just wanted a game. He never got a minute.

"I guess I got to see a lot of Canada and America!" smiles Marmion now.

"We went up to Niagara Falls and JJ Watt looked after us and took us to his house, there were some good life experiences. A bit more rugby would have been good..."

Without their 2013 Lion Conor Murray, temporary head coach Les Kiss brought Isaac Boss, who wouldn't feature in the 2015 World Cup squad, and Paul Marshall, from Ulster's wheezing scrum-half production line.

Patience and perseverance have been Marmion's bedfellows since. Four years on - with Boss retired, Marshall out of sight and Murray injured - Marmion was the starter when Ireland beat world-record chasing England in the Six Nations. It's fair to say Marmion had collected a lot of dust en route to scaling his personal Everest.

"I would have liked to have played but it was good to be on the tour," he reflects.

"It was a big step-up. I was pretty young, it was a bit daunting. I only knew Robbie Henshaw. But over time you get to learn things and that was the best thing about it. I was hoping to get capped, I probably knew I wasn't going to start, but I hoped to get game time. Still, I gained a lot of confidence going into next season."

Marmion would have to wait another 17 months to make his debut, snuffing out concerns that the new Irish coach Joe Schmidt didn't fancy him. This time he will start the tour as first choice, eager to bridge the still yawning gap between himself and Murray.

"I need to kick on from where I've been, show that I can consistently put in performances," insists the Connacht player, now 25, with 13 caps behind him and a Guinness PRO12 title too.

Challenged

"Keep working away on the training field. There are a lot of new faces here, so I should have a bit more of an understanding of what's going on. Hopefully I can help them and kick on from there.

"Joe has challenged a few of us to step up. There's an opportunity there off the field as well, to step up and try to lead a bit more.

"There's a lot of stuff he asks of you on the training pitch that maybe I haven't been asked before. They're different questions, I guess, that he's asking. You've got to be really switched on, otherwise he will catch you out."

The absent spectre of Murray's class cannot but be present within as he seeks to copper-fasten the coach's trust.

"He's been performing for however many years, so I'm learning off him and trying to get opportunities," he adds.

"I know how good he is. I know how much I've got to work to get up to that level, but every opportunity I get is a chance to show what different aspects of my game I've got that I can push him with.

"Joe is always on to me about working on certain aspects of my game. I've been working hard on that, so it's just adding that to what I already do. My traits of the game are a bit different to Conor's, so I try to bring that in as well."

Connacht's European demotion, though, may damage his ambitions.

"It's disappointing, but within the PRO12 it just means you have to put in good performances against the top teams every week when we haven't got those opportunities to play in the Champions Cup."

Beyond its intimate confines, few will take notice of this tour, but in mid-World Cup cycle its long-term benefits may be crucial.

James Ryan will travel, but, like Marmion before him, may not see a minute of competitive fare.

"One of the beauties of taking guys away on tour is you get to know what they're like and you see how they respond to pressure situations," agrees Schmidt.

"Kieran has had to work really hard because he's had a world-class guy in front of him who has until recently been incredibly resilient and has been fit and available for pretty much all the games he was required to play.

"It's a great opportunity for him now and when those windows do emerge you want to grab it with both hands."

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