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McLaughlin's No 9 worry as Ulster sweat on Marshall X-ray results

ULSTER are sweating on the fitness of scrum-half Paul Marshall ahead of this weekend's Pro12 clash with Leinster at Ravenhill and the Heineken Cup semi-final showdown against Edinburgh in Dublin the following weekend.

Marshall, who has been hugely impressive this season as understudy to South African star Ruan Pienaar, was forced off after scoring a try in the first half in Ulster's loss to Connacht in Galway on Saturday evening.

The scrum-half, who many believe is a strong candidate to make Ireland's touring party for the three-Test series in New Zealand in June, went for an X-ray after the match and an update on his condition is due today. The main worry is that the injury is on the same arm Marshall broke during his schools rugby days with Methody College.

If Marshall were to be ruled out, Ian Porter would be the favourite to step up as scrum-half replacement. The 24-year-old, a graduate of the provincial academy, has been playing well for Belfast Harlequins in the All-Ireland League but has only four appearances off the bench for Ulster this season (totalling 83 minutes) and none since December.

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Aside from Marshall, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has no major injury concerns and is expected to name close to a full-strength side for Friday's meeting with the European champions at the RDS. Not only will McLaughlin wish to give his front-line players a proper hit-out before their Edinburgh assignment, there is also the need to stay in the hunt for a Pro12 play-off spot.

The loss to Connacht sees Ulster positioned just outside the top four, a point behind Glasgow (Munster's concession of a late losing-bonus point awarding try to the Warriors on Saturday night did McLaughlin's men no favours) and with their final fixture involving a trip to Limerick on May 5, it is an extremely tough run-in.

One of McLaughlin's key decisions will be at tight-head prop with John Afoa still serving a four-week suspension. Tom Court, Ulster's first-choice loose-head, had his difficulties when started at tight against Connacht and McLaughlin may look at starting either Adam Macklin or Declan Fitzpatrick in the No 3 jersey.

Both are considered to be technically good scrummagers but are short on starts this season. Fitzpatrick has the greater experience and has represented the Ireland 'A' side but has had a truncated season due to injury, while 18 of Macklin's 19 appearances for Ulster this season have been off the bench.

Irish Independent