As trips to North America go, Kieran Marmion’s four years ago wasn’t bad.
A week in Houston, Texas and another spent up in Toronto. Niagara Falls among the excursions and, to top it all, a night spent with his mates in the company of mammoth Houston Texans defensive end and three-time NFL defensive player of the year JJ Watt.
Few 21-year olds would expect more but, for Marmion at the time, the main emotion was one of frustration as he flew home.
During that first call-up to the Irish senior squad, he managed plenty of reps in training but a Test debut wasn’t part of the package.
Les Kiss, acting head coach in the period between Declan Kidney’s exit and Joe Schmidt’s official arrival, leaned instead on Isaac Boss and Paul Marshall. Schmidt would point out to Marmion at one point that caps had to be earned and not just handed out.
“It was interesting,” he said, looking back ahead of his return trip Stateside this week.
“I would have liked to have played but it was good to be on it. I was pretty young. About 20, 21. Stepping up I had only Robbie [Henshaw from Connacht] with me so it was a bit daunting.
“But over time you get to learn a lot of things.”
Patience has been one of them.
It took another 12 months, on the 2014 summer tour of Argentina, for him to get a run and the Barking native hadn’t managed any more than 35 minutes in the Irish shirt in any given campaign.
Seven appearances this term have included critical chunks of playing time against Australia, Wales and England and he approaches Ireland’s game at the Red Bull Arena this Saturday as the first-choice scrum-half thanks to Conor Murray’s engagements in New Zealand.
“It’s a great opportunity for the likes of myself and a lot of other lads,” he admitted.
“There’s a lot of excitement in there. A lot of the lads will get chances who may not get chances if the first-choice guys were here.”
It’s probably fair to say that it’s taken Marmion time to earn Schmidt’s trust.
Murray has been part of the reason for that, obviously. The Munster man is a world-class operator who has almost always been fit and available to feature for his country in recent years and that left Marmion with limited opportunity for exposure.
The result was a large question mark over the position of reserve nine in a squad where strength and depth was expanding all the time but Marmion has adapted to the Schmidt system while bringing his own strengths and perspectives to the party.
“I guess I’m a different player to Conor,” said the now 25-year-old, whose cap count stands at 13.
“I guess when you’ve got someone who’s working for you and going so well you’re going to place your trust in that.
“Joe is always on to me about working on certain aspects of my game. I’ve been working hard on that, so it’s just adding that to what I already do and I guess my traits of the game that are a bit different to Conor’s. I try to bring that in as well.”
Murray’s absence won’t just leave the door ajar for Marmion. Fellow Connacht nine John Cooney is another who travels this week but Leinster’s Luke McGrath is the man second in line to the temporarily vacant throne ahead of the three-test trip.
McGrath has impressed this season in filling the breach left by the retirements at Leinster of Eoin Reddan and Boss and, unlike Marmion, he has the platform of Champions Cup rugby to further his case and his game again next season.
All of which adds to the sense that this is Marmion’s time to shine, not just in terms of his performances on the pitch but off the park where a squad devoid of so much experience will need a rump of others to step up and assume the role of leaders.
“Joe has challenged a few of us to step up [who] probably wouldn’t have been senior players before but, with lads missing and lads coming in for their first time, lads have been challenged to step up, I guess I’m one of them who’ve been around for a bit of time now.”
From rookie to leader, that’s a good four-year cycle.
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