Luke Marshall may be new to Test rugby but he has already seen enough on the eve of his fifth cap to know that the Ireland squad now being guided by Joe Schmidt should be showing just how good it really is.
The 22-year-old Ulster centre is out to prove his worth at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow when Ireland open their Six Nations campaign against Scotland, having been chosen ahead of international veteran Gordon D’Arcy to partner Brian O’Driscoll in the Irish midfield.
Both those Leinster men were stars on TV when a 16-year-old Marshall watched from his sofa as Ireland claimed the Grand Slam in 2009, and now training and playing alongside his heroes, the youngster knows it is high time the men in green lived up fully to their capabilities on the championship stage.
“It’s definitely still something I have to pinch myself about, having watched those games but we haven’t done as well since,” Marshall told the Irish Examiner yesterday.
“We’ve shown a fraction of how good we can be and with all the players we have, everybody knows, even outside of Ireland, that we should be doing better than we are. Over the last five or six years our provinces have been some of the strongest teams in Europe and it’s about time we put down a marker and showed where we should be at. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t win it this year.”
It is a year since Marshall made his Six Nations debut against Scotland at Murrayfield, during a troubled, injury-hit campaign that cost coach Declan Kidney his job and ushered in Leinster’s Joe Schmidt as his successor.
Inevitably, just as Kidney’s arrival sparked the Irish into Grand Slam winners in his first season, there is a sense of rejuvenation with Schmidt taking over the reins and, coupled with the success over the last two months of Ulster, Leinster and Munster in reaching the last eight of the Heineken Cup, Marshall believes it is a much happier Ireland set-up than the one he entered a year ago.
“We’re still looking back at some of the Scotland clips and I think it’s still reasonably fresh in guys’ minds, and that’s in a good way. It’s a motivating thing, that we just don’t want to be in that position again this year.
“We know we’re good enough to make a challenge and push to win the competition. The quality of performances we delivered last year, they weren’t good enough and that’s not the type of team we want to be.
“There’s more confidence in camp, coming in from our provinces after those Heineken Cup performances and guys knowing how good a coach Joe is.
“Now we’re looking forward to going into this first game and showing what we’re about.”
Having run world champions New Zealand so close during the November Tests, a week after a dismal team performance led to defeat to Australia in Schmidt’s second game in charge, Marshall is confident Ireland can pick up where they left off in terms of the intensity they brought to the All Blacks game and ensure the Wallabies game was the blip rather than the game that followed.
“The biggest thing I took out of the autumn was the intensity,” he said. “We talk about it in camp. Going into the New Zealand game we were hurting big time and embarrassed with how it went against Australia.
“I think that’s been a trend over the last few seasons, that whenever Irish teams are hurting it’s those situations that bring out those types of performances. We’ve been talking about how that shouldn’t be the case.
“We should be bringing the same intensity to games every week. We all know that and Joe helps with that intensity because he doesn’t let it drop in training.
“It is tough to maintain but he’s driving it and guys have a lot of respect for him. We all want to improve as a team and with him driving it and us knowing what’s required, I think we are definitely improving it.”
Marshall is also confident that his relative inexperience at Test level will be eased by the presence of Johnny Sexton on his inside shoulder at fly-half and O’Driscoll on his outside in the No.13 jersey.
“It’s definitely a massive opportunity and it’s up to me to take it. I’ve played a few games with Brian before but only half a game against Australia with Johnny, so it’s very nice to have that experience inside and out. Johnny’s playing great rugby at the minute and it will be nice to play off him, it definitely makes it a lot easier.
“The flip side of that is there’s a wee bit of pressure on you to raise your game when you’re playing alongside these two greats but I’m looking forward to it.”
Marshall is unconcerned that his fledging 10-12 partnership with Sexton will curb his playmaking instincts that flourish playing alongside Paddy Jackson at Ulster.
“Johnny’s very much an attack-minded fly-half as well and giving him another option outside him as an extra playmaker will help him as well, and I think he will help me because that’s my style of game. Johnny’s a ‘positive 10’. He’s always looking to attack and his first instinct would be to run rather than kick. He’ll move the ball wide and I can still play my style of game with him.”
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