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West is best for rising talent Marmion

KIERAN MARMION represents a new generation of Connacht players, a generation who believe they can realise their international ambitions while continuing to play for the western province.

The scrum-half and his fellow U-20 international Robbie Henshaw are the leading characters in the 'Grassroots to Green Shirts' campaign unveiled by Connacht earlier this season. This initiative is designed to ensure that players don't have to leave the province in order to further their aspirations.

It's an ambitious and bold plan. It was, however, unfortunate that the timing of its launch came so soon after it was confirmed their international second-row Mike McCarthy will be joining Leinster next season.

McCarthy was the only Connacht player to play in the Six Nations for Ireland this year, and losing him will be a big blow to them next season.

It also highlighted the fact that, in the professional era, players have invariably felt the need to leave Connacht to progress their careers. Under their grassroots initiative, though, it is anticipated that players won't feel that pressure anymore.

Marmion certainly believes he can further his career while continuing to represent Connacht.

"If you look at our backline, I think we're all under the age of 22," the enthusiastic No 9 pointed out.

ambition

"There is also another group of players coming through the Academy now and they all want to step up and play for the senior side. That ambition is there for them, just as it is for me. We truly believe that Connacht will get better and stronger in the coming seasons.

"We all feel confident that playing with Connacht will provide us the platform to further our careers.

"If you're playing well with Connacht you will get noticed by the international coaches. Connacht are progressing well and we will continue to build on our recent experiences of playing in the Heineken Cup and becoming even more competitive in the Pro12 and in Europe."

Connacht, who played in the Heineken Cup for the first time last season, won three of their pool games during this campaign and, at one stage, even flirted with qualification for the knockout stages.

Marmion played in all six pool games – he has been an ever-present in their team this season.

It is all the more remarkable an achievement when you remember that, before the start of the season, the 20-year-old had never played a senior game for Connacht and was entering just his second season in their Academy.

Connacht's first and second-choice scrum-halves, Frank Murphy and Paul O'Donoghue, were both injured at the beginning of the season and Marmion started the Pro12 opener against Cardiff.

He hasn't looked back and tonight he will maintain his record as the only Connacht player to start every game this season.

"I had set my ambitions slightly lower at the start of the season, to be truthful," he said.

"I was hoping to get some involvement off the bench in a couple of games and continue my progression from the Academy.

"With the two lads injured, I got my chance and, thankfully, Eric (Elwood) has shown faith in me since then. At this level, it's all about taking every chance that comes your way and I did just that with the opportunity I got at the start of the season."

It has been a hallmark of Elwood's tenure with Connacht to promote younger players when their form demands it. It is one of the reasons he will be so missed by the squad; according to Marmion, his departure is one of the strongest motivations for them to perform in their final three games.

"Eric is synonymous with Connacht rugby. Our last three games are like cup finals to the squad. We want to finish as high up the table as possible to give Eric a good send-off," he said.

"Knowing that he is going at the end of the season is a huge motivation for us because he means so much to the squad.

"He brought this group together, and securing a high placing would be a fitting way for him to end with us."

Ulster have plenty to play for themselves. They top the Pro12 table, but potentially can be done out of a home semi-final if results go against them, with Glasgow Warriors poised to pounce on any slip-ups.

Leinster provide a buffer between them and the top two places will be determined by this trio. Ospreys and Scarlets are battling it out for the fourth and final play-off spot.

Both of tonight's combatants are coming off the back of victories. Connacht saw off Edinburgh in Murrayfield last weekend, while Ulster showed no mercy when crushing Dragons 31-5 at Ravenhill.

"Ulster are in great form and have some fantastic players, not least Ruan Pienaar," acknowledged Marmion.

"He is the complete scrum-half and was certainly a player I looked up to growing up. Ulster want to consolidate their position at the head of the table and I'm sure they won't be coming to Galway with less than 100pc focus."

The league leaders have made five personnel changes and two positional changes to the team that beat the Dragons last weekend.

Andrew Trimble is named on the right wing, with Tommy Bowe moving to the left, Jared Payne and Paddy Jackson returning in the backs and Chris Henry and Lewis Stevenson the two main changes up front.

Skipper Johann Muller is named on a strong bench which includes John Afoa and Iain Henderson.

Elwood, meanwhile, has kept faith with the starting team that defeated Edinburgh for a game Marmion expects will be hugely physical.

"Ulster are a big, strong side. That this is the last derby of the season will add some spice to it and we are all looking forward to the contest," he added.

Verdict: Ulster

Connacht – R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, B Murphy, G Duffy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; M Kearney, J Muldoon, G Naoupu. Reps: E Reynecke, R Ah You, JP Cooney, A Browne, M Fifita, P O'Donohoe, M Nikora, F Vainikolo

Ulster – J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, R Lutton; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; R Diack C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, C Black, J Afoa, J Muller, I Henderson, P Marshall, M Allen, P Nelson.

Connacht v Ulster,

Live, TG4, 7.45

Irish Independent