He could not have timed his Ulster return any better, but even Luke Marshall is pleasantly surprised by how well he’s played since returning from long-term injury.
A brave try-saving tackle in a Champions Cup play-off against the Ospreys last May, which clinched Ulster’s place in Europe’s premier competition this season, came at a massive personal loss to the Ulster centre, who ruptured his ACL.
How he spent the next 10 months shaped the success of his return, and he has certainly hit the ground running.
After an impressive cameo off the bench in the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat by Leinster, he started the PRO14 games against Glasgow, Edinburgh and Connacht and was generally one of Ulster’s top three performers in all of them.
Jacob Stockdale and Louis Ludik return from injury to join Marshall in the back-line for tonight’s PRO14 semi-final against Glasgow.
“It’s been good to get back on the pitch again and my timing was pretty good, I got lucky,” Marshall said.
“I think I got playing in that quarter-final just by default. There were so many injuries I was probably the only man left standing.
Aside from the well-documented series of concussion injuries he suffered earlier in his career, the last 10 months brought a whole new set of challenges for Marshall. He credits skills coach Dan Soper with not only getting him through it, but enabling him to return right at the pitch required to make an immediate impact.
“It’s a bit different this season because normally when you’re injured you’re just doing your weights and rehab and you don’t do any skills.
“But Dan (Soper) has done a lot of work with injured guys and their skills, off-feet skills and a lot of ball skills. Normally if I was coming back from injury my passing would be one thing that would be rusty, but that’s been different this year. I felt when I came back my skills were probably better than when I got injured.
“I have been surprised how well I adapted, but there has been a lot of work done behind the scenes to make it that way.”
One moment he’d prefer to forget since his comeback was the fumble against Glasgow, tonight’s PRO14 semi-final opponents, in a hefty 30-7 defeat last month.
With the try at his mercy, Marshall dawdled, allowing the quick-thinking Tommy Seymour to knock the ball out of his hand. He returns to Scotstoun, the scene of the crime, intent on writing a different narrative.
Given Ulster were unlucky PRO12 semi-final losers to the same opponents at the same ground in 2015, all the hurt should come pouring out of one changing-room.
“This is a good chance to hopefully get revenge. We know if we play to the full ability we have, we can get a result, but we have nothing to lose really. They’re the ones who finished top of their Conference and they’re expected to go through.”
Marshall might well be telling himself that, but no-one at Ulster needs any reminding it’s now 13 seasons since they lifted a trophy, the old Celtic League in 2006. With Darren Cave and Rory Best, the last surviving link to that team, retiring at the end of the season there will soon be no-one in the Ulster dressing-room from that winning side.
Now just potentially 180 minutes away from silverware, Marshall is entitled to dream.
“You always find yourself, just whenever you have a bit of free time, thinking about what it would be like to lift a trophy over in Celtic Park.
“You’ve got to, that’s the motivation at the end of the day. We’re not thinking past the semi-final but you have to imagine how good it would be, because it’s so long since we’ve won a trophy.”
Glasgow wing DTH van der Merwe has recovered ahead of schedule from shoulder surgery to start for Glasgow tonight. Co-captain Callum Gibbins is also back from injury to start in the back-row.
Darren Cave is named on the Ulster bench, giving him the chance to equal Andrew Trimble’s record of 229 appearances for Ulster.