Saturday 16 November 2019

Luke Marshall battles through pain barrier in meteoric rise to Ireland centre stage

David Kelly

David Kelly

AS the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined. Anyone fretful that Luke Marshall may suffer from vertigo after his precipitous 12-month rise from club player to prospective international star need worry no longer.

The Ballymena man clearly has a gift for ignoring every pitfall – having already demonstrated his ability to recover from a terrifying fall from grace such that nothing, even at 21, appears to faze him.

Astonishingly, as the baby-faced midfield assassin revealed this week, a fall from a tree when he was just 12 resulted in him breaking a bone in his back that, remarkably, has yet to heal.

To raised eyebrows from even his fearless captain Jamie Heaslip, Marshall nonchalantly related a tale from childhood with all the insouciance of one reeling off his favourite rugby player (Dan Carter, as it happens).

"I had a bit of back trouble at 17 or 18," he says.

"I had a scan on it and it was a bone I had broken years ago, basically."

Heaslip could only watch goggle-eyed in admiration.

CHARACTER

"I suppose it shows the character that he is," said the captain, perhaps understandably relieved to cede the spotlight this week given his travails against England.

"A lot of guys throughout the years have played when hurt, but playing since you were 12 with a broken bone in your back is taking it to another level.

"Like any professional, he assesses it analytically and deals with it. Obviously, he is good with his prehab and it does not cause him any problems."

Marshall is relatively sanguine about the problem, ascribing its symptoms in the same way a mere mortal might describe a nagging toothache.

"I can have surgery to fix it, but I thought it would clear up anyway," he says languidly. "At the minute, I just work on my core and whatnot. It's when it hits the nerve, that's when the pain comes. Fingers crossed. It is a bit annoying at times."

The image of someone possessed of a free-spirited nature, not always necessarily beneficial to situations imbued with such tension as this weekend's fixture, doesn't escape attention when his fellow Ireland debutant, Paddy Jackson, is canvassed.

"I remember him trying two left-footed drop goals from the 10-metre line against me," the ex-Methody boy recalled of his one-time Ballymena Academy out-half opponent. "He didn't get them though. You're asking if he is free-spirited, he definitely was."

Marshall, unsurprisingly, is not one to demur.

"I suppose at my school we didn't really kick the ball. It was the opposite of how Paddy played then. I still practice kicking, though. So, I can take a little heat off Paddy!"

It was Marshall who ultimately had to take the heat, in fairness, recognising with the help of his coaches that he should shift outfield one position as Jackson's development gathered pace.

"I think it was Neil Doak at Ulster (their backs coach), who sort of said to me: 'You're pretty big for a 10, why don't you consider moving to 12?'

"Paddy was coming through and a couple of other good 10s too. I was happy enough to move."

Despite limited exposure at Ulster until now – it must be remembered that his Six Nations starting debut will precede his first Heineken Cup start – Marshall has been on Ireland's radar for more than a year now.

Nevertheless, when originally unveiling his Six Nations squad, Kidney name-checked then incumbent – now injured – Gordon D'Arcy, Dave McSharry, Paddy Wallace and even James Downey ahead of him.

Evidence that this, perhaps, is yet another selection call that has been foisted upon a coach whose lack of clarity in planning has forced him into a corner.

Not that this should besmirch the kid's obvious talents, as assistant coach Les Kiss glowingly reports.

"He can pass the ball well, he can pass short and long," explains Kiss. "He has good footwork and as Gert Smal and I recognised often from when we've gone up to watch Ulster play or train, he carries his body weight well.

"Luke is a good solid lad, plus his agility is nice. Usually when we talk about agility, it is in attack, but his agility in defence is very good too.

"He can actually shape his defence to handle any threat coming in a direct sense, but also, if the ball shifts wide, he can move off that channel and get into a defensive channel wider quite quickly. So, across those broad skill sets, he's shown some promise."

That sense of ease in movement, augmenting a stout physicality, has earned Marshall many admirers. So, too, his eagerness to display these wares at the highest level, however foreboding the obstacles may seem.

"You look forward to meeting traffic, you want the physical confrontation," according to Marshall, whose direct opponent, Matt Scott, has enjoyed a similar career graph, but to whom he concedes half a stone and three inches. "Hopefully, if the opponent is bigger, I'll be able to get around him and make a few breaks.

"It helps to have a wee bit of bulk. England and Wales go for the straight hit-up option, we like to go a bit wider and play the second five-eighth option like New Zealand, so that probably suits smaller players like myself."

The sky is the limit for Marshall. Even if he may not have always had a head for heights.

Irish Independent

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