By Linley MacKenzie
Connacht Rugby's Kieran Marmion has spent more time than usual this season cooling his heels, but the current corona hiatus is giving him valuable breathing space to prepare for a renewed assault on the No 9 Ireland shirt.
The suspension of all rugby is something of a blessing for him, coming amid an unprecedented difficult season for the 28-years-old. Usually fully-fit, Marmion has been beset by three injuries in the past 18 months, and coupled with his unexpected omission from Ireland's World Cup squad, he is already looking ahead to a new season and a "clean slate".
Currently housebound in Galway with twin brother Liam and Connacht prop Pete McCabe, Marmion is using his time to get back to full strength. Unable to run after recovering from ankle surgery, his indoor Wattbike is installed in the shed where he spends the morning to keep himself "as fit as possible". There's also the daily game of cricket out back - "no running in my back yard either - if you hit the wall, you get a four". In between he is studying a sports coaching course online, organised through Rugby Players Ireland, while evenings comprise "learning to cook", and playing board games to "pass the time and have a bit of fun".
However, at the heart of all Marmion's rehabilitation is the strong ambition to play for Ireland again.
"Obviously I have to be playing rugby to do that, so this is a good opportunity to start again, and get my body right. With this break I can focus on building myself up again, and start with a clean slate when we get back up and running."
Marmion still vividly remembers that 9pm telephone call from former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt last September.
It was brief, about 50 seconds, telling him Ireland was going to the World Cup with Conor Murray and Luke McGrath, then asking Marmion if he would rejoin the squad's training.
Marmion did not say much in response - "too shocked" - he says.
"It was pretty hard to get the head right after that, specially having to go training with them. There were three of us in the squad who didn't make it, all involved in training, and that was tough because the players were all so happy to have made the squad and we were there just to improve the numbers in training. But you know it was the right thing to do, and I'm glad I did to be honest."
Needless to say his omission surprised many who had watched Marmion flourish as Murray's understudy for several years - not least his fellow Connacht players also involved in the Ireland squad, Jack Carty and Bundee Aki, while his mum offered to come over from Brecon in Wales in support.
"At the time I was quite angry. I'm good friends with Luke, and he's a great guy, which made it tougher. We've been friends since playing underage, and he's a down-to-earth guy. I knew it would be a tight call, but I felt I had always produced performances in the past, and on the basis of being the No 2, I was confident, but I was naive."
Instead Marmion returned to the west keen to get back on the pitch. "I was told I could take as much time off as I wanted, but I didn't think that would have been good for me. We played Munster the following week and I wanted to be involved, so I was put on the bench and glad to be back into the swing of things."
Time, of course, is a healer, but Marmion, having also missed out on the previous World Cup, says he will always feel some pain.
"I will always be disappointed. It will always be with me, but it also drives me on. I still want to go the World Cup. I think I have one more in me, and it probably drives me more than ever, so I am trying to use the disappointment as a positive."
At the time Marmion's disappointment and anger fueled thoughts of a move to England where he was born. Although his parents were Irish, he grew up in Wales, while dad Mick had played with Saracens.
"I definitely looked into moving - a few people were telling me it was best to go elsewhere which I did listen to. However I am glad I made the decision to stay, and I have a set path for the next three years - that is the main thing. What I am made off and where I am now is Connacht, and having a brother here, well, I'm pretty glad I am all sorted."
Marmion was destined for honours since arriving in Galway in 2011, and within a season he was in the senior squad. His explosive pace and sniping ability in attack became a weapon for Connacht, and his lightning speed set a record which still exists at the Sportsground. Behind his youthful looks is a toughness and resilience that is often underestimated, carved from many obstacles - not least the death of his father Mick when Kieran was part of the Ireland U20 World Cup set-up.
"I was 21 when he died - it was my first season with Connacht. He had brought me into the Exiles and then he brought me over here in that summer when he was healthy. He was a huge influence, still came to the games when he was sick, he was into the rugby."
His father was diagnosed with a brain tumour while Kieran was playing in the U20 World Cup, but he was not told the severity.
"He was meant to come to South Africa to watch, but mum rang me to say he was a bit sick, and it was best they don't travel. It wasn't until I got back mum told me how serious it was.
"The tumour was inoperable, so he had a year, and that's when I came on the scene in Connacht. I played my first season and he would come to watch. I was selected on the Irish senior summer tour, and although I didn't get capped, at least he saw me involved in that set up.
"It is times like getting dropped when I think of my dad who has passed and think it is just rugby at the end of the day, it puts it into perspective, it does help."
While his dad's passing was emotionally traumatic, last year was probably his most difficult, psychologically and physically, since arriving in Connacht via that Exiles pathway.
Having recovered from ankle surgery last February, Marmion suffered a back injury following his omission from the World Cup squad, ruling him out of action for two months. Then followed four games on the trot with Connacht in which he was looking sharp and refreshed. However two weeks ago, he underwent more surgery on the other ankle.
"Every time I feel like I'm getting back playing again, I've had an injury - first the back and now the ankle. They say injuries come in threes, so that's the third in 18 months and I'm hoping that is the end of it.
"I've been playing a lot over the last seven or eight years, so may be it has caught up with me a little bit. This is certainly the longest I've been off in my career. Now I can't wait for a new season, so this is a great opportunity to get my body fresh and ready."
In his long career with Ireland, Marmion has been unfortunate and "a little frustrated" to have sat behind Conor Murray for so long. Despite some memorable appearances for Ireland, not least the win over the All Blacks in November 2018 in which Marmion's tackle on Reiko Ioane was crucial, he spent much time awaiting his chance from the bench. When asked, Marmion always delivered, even from the wing. His 2016 tackle on Australian David Pocock to dislodge the ball forward was described by Schmidt as "phenomenal."
However, it did not help the Connacht scrumhalf that Schmidt was loyal to people who had performed for him in the past, something Marmion says is out of a player's control.
"All you can do is play the best you can. Conor is a world-class player, so it was always going to be a tough for me to get opportunities."
Unsurprisingly games with NZ and England remain Marmion's favourites, and he has few regrets after playing in 27 internationals - 19 from the bench.
"I have been involved in some big games. Like every player I'd like to be involved in all games, and like players, you are always going to have some ups and downs, injuries, competition, setbacks. It's never going to be perfect. Very few stay at top for so long, so you have to make sure you give yourself the best opportunities and then, by performing, put your hand up. I am fairly happy with most of my performances in the opportunities I have been given."
Strong both defensively and in attack, box kicking is the only aspect of Marmion's game that has been perceived as a weakness.'
"It was the only issue and I am constantly improving all the time, but it's hard at the Sportsground - it's not the most conducive place for box kicking, but I'm always working at it. Myself and Jack Carty visit a sports psychologist once a week to nail bits of kicking, so it's a constant work-on for every nine."
New Ireland coach Andy Farrell was in touch when announcing his Six Nationals squad despite Marmion's unavailability.
"He gave me a call to say I was in contention once I'm back back fit and performing. I'm sure it's the same message for every nine, but I do believe when I am fit and performing, I will be in contention. For me it's about getting my body right to make sure I can compete at that level again.
"You build up a resilience - it's part of rugby having set backs - but I've probably just learned the process of it, more than worrying about the outcomes. Once I would worry about being selected or not, but the main thing now is to enjoy it, and the more you enjoy it, the better you play. That is the main thing I've learned."
For anyone who thinks it's all over for Marmion's international career, it's "absolutely not."