I was nervous about being knocked out again, admits Luke Marshall
Ulster star bouncing back from concussion woes to test D'Arcy's grip on Ireland shirt
LUKE MARSHALL is thankful that the only thing giving him headaches these days are the words of Joe Schmidt ringing in his ears. The Ulster centre is back in the Ireland set-up and feeling far better than he did six months ago when he suffered three concussions that would eventually end his season prematurely.
After enduring his third head injury in consecutive games, against Saracens in April, Marshall sat out the rest of Ulster's season and skipped a summer tour that seemed tailor-made for him to confirm his place in the Ireland set-up.
With the doctors telling him rest was needed, he listened and gave his head some room to recover. The Pro12 Young Player of the Year returned at the start of this season and has been in fine form, but he admits that he did have some concerns when he first returned to the pitch.
"The first game I was a little bit nervous, it was in the back of my mind. I was nervous about being knocked out again and what would happen," he explained.
"After I got the first few tackles out of the way, it was fine and I haven't thought about it since. I've had no problems since either."
Concussion is a hot topic in rugby circles and Marshall is held up as an example of the dangers of a sport in which the collision is becoming a bigger beast all the time.
The youngster went through a series of different tests with a host of doctors to ensure that he was right, although he did get some help from his team-mates to make sure he passed, a revelation that won't please those concerned with the potential dangers of the injury.
"Initially after the three concussions it was about passing the tests," he explained. "I had a couple of consultations with doctors and specialists and they were happy enough that I wasn't suffering any ill effects, any sore heads or dizziness.
"They were happy with 'rest and see what happens next season'. Obviously, this season has been fine."
Did being asked the same questions repeatedly ever get annoying?
"I suppose I did, yeah," he admits. "One of the ones I went to, the specialist down in Dublin was very odd. I was just expecting him to ask me stuff about my head, but instead he was asking me stuff to get me annoyed because apparently that's a sign of still being concussed. He was asking me stuff about my parents, my brothers, stuff that wasn't related at all."
Did he get annoyed? "No, Paddy Wallace had told me what to expect so it wasn't too bad."
This week he has been adjusting to working under a new coach, Schmidt, who is renowned for his attention to detail – something that Marshall has noticed at first hand.
"He has been pretty intense on the pitch, he's been pretty vocal and everything is about perfection, lines of running, everything, balls dropped. Any mistakes, he is quick to shout at guys which is good, it keeps us on our toes," he explained.
"The thing I've noticed is the lines of running – even the dummy lines. Any coaches I've worked under before are not too bothered about the dummy lines, even though it is important and a very particular job.
"Everything with Joe needs to be particular and on the money which is obviously only going to make us better as players and as a team."
Having taken his opportunity to fill Gordon D'Arcy's boots last season, the centre now carries his good form into November for a battle with the old bearded master.
He remains respectful of his 33-year-old rival for the No 12 jersey and is not ready to make any bold pronouncements, even if he wants the shirt that the Wexford native has made his own over the past decade.
"I am happy enough with my form so far this season but it is hard to look past what Gordon has done for Ireland in the past," he said. "He has been brilliant for 10 years and I am fresh on the scene so I wouldn't say I would expect to start. Definitely not, but I would be very happy."
Having starred in the non-capped international win over Fiji and made his full debut at Murrayfield, last season marked a breakthrough for the quietly-spoken Antrim native and while Ireland were not going well as he made his bow, he is happy with how it went for him.
"It was obviously great to get a first cap and I suppose I was happy enough to at the end of the season," he said.
"But there are still lots of areas of improvement for me. I am nowhere near the finished article and there is a lot of competition with Stuart (Olding) coming through at Ulster as well and Gordon with Ireland. I am happy with what I did last year but I need to improve on it now."