April 2021 Featured

Benji Marshall – Rugby League Magician

When Benji Marshall finally retires, the rugby league world will be poorer for it, but glad they witnessed the career of a magician.

The sun has set on an early October day in 2005. 35 minutes into a rugby league match and this kid from Whakatane, New Zealand gets the ball five metres out from his own line. He races past one defender, skips out of a tackle from a second and hits clean air.

A big goose step and he puts the hammer down, trying to outrun the cover defence but his angle is taking him towards the sideline and out of play.

If he keeps going this way, this whole passage will have been exciting, but consigned to just the half time highlights. Filed away under “nearly a magic moment”.

He has a trick up his sleeve though. If it comes off, he’s a genius. If he fails, then he looks the fool on the NRL’s biggest stage.

The stage he may only get to once. A stage many players never reach and even fewer players conquer.

It’s a risk, but his career will be all about risk versus reward.

Taking a risk

Australia has always loved the athlete willing to have a go. Attend any sport in the country and at some point, when the action is quiet, you’ll inevitably hear someone, probably fuelled by the amber liquid shout, “Have a go ya mugs,” or some derivative of it.

Rugby league perhaps loves risk takers most of all. It’s what children fall in love with, what dads tell their kids and grandkids about.

It’s in the DNA of rugby league to take a risk. The game wouldn’t have existed if 22 clubs in the north of England didn’t take a risk.

It’s the player daring to attempt a chip and chase.

It’s another winger tip-toeing down the sideline to contort their body into the corner.

It’s that flick pass. The flick pass everyone still talks about. The flick pass that still gives junior coaches nightmares. The flick pass that helped win a grand final. Yes, that flick pass.

You take that flick pass and add in a deadly sidestep and you have Benji Marshall.

When he hit the scene as a teenager he was unique. Commentators speak of the next Inglis, the next Beetson, the next Thurston. Marshall is none of those. He is the first and only Benji Marshall.

He takes risks no other player would. Sometimes they come off, more often than not they don’t. He led the NRL in errors from 2010 to 2012.

Benji doesn’t seem to have a good memory. He tries one thing and if it doesn’t work, he’ll try something else. 

There is no shell for him to recede into. That’s not Benji.

His coach Tim Sheens backed him. That’s what a player like Benji needs.

And Benji is the player to take advantage when an opportunity presents.

The flick pass is dangerous. 

Like a magician’s sleight of hand trick, he shows the ball to his opponent, it disappears behind his back and lands in the clutches of a teammate.

Here it is. No, it isn’t.

It becomes a schoolyard call anytime someone attempts it.

“Do a Benji.”

“That was a good Benji.”

It’s no longer just a flick pass. It’s the Benji flick pass.

The sidestep is deadly.

Bang. Bang. He’s there one second, now he’s not. The defender who thought he’d lined him up is turning around in desperation, nearly falling over, his eyes betraying his fear and embarrassment.

I could be talking about any defender who has been skinned by the Benji step.

They all look the same in the end. Grasping at thin air, dropping their head, realising this is probably going to be on the film during recovery the next day.

It’s the step developed on the proving grounds of New Zealand touch football.

The step that inspired a generation of Kiwi rugby league players.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson, Chanel Harris-Tavita. They all possess sidesteps. They’re all measured against the Benji step.

They talk about looking up to Benji. Now they play against him. Like the magician taking on his apprentices.

Kiwi legend

New Zealand rugby league needed a Benji Marshall. It’s hard to attract legions of fans when the alternative is the all conquering All Blacks. 

But here came Benji. Hot on the heels of the legendary Stacey Jones. Where Jones was a brilliant organiser and leader, Benji was the player every kid wanted to be.

Unpredictability, risk, flash. It was a much needed tonic across the Ditch.

In 2008 he helped lead the Kiwis to the Rugby League World Cup, defeating an Australian side boasting some of the finest players the game has ever seen. 

He saw a chance. He took it. You know the chance. Billy Slater tosses the ball into the air only metres from the goal line for Benji to swoop in and score.

He repeated the dose in 2010 at the Four Nations. Two sublime try assists in a four point win.

There’s no better way to be embraced by New Zealand than beating the Aussies.

He is growing, developing and becoming the leader the Kiwis need. He attracted kids to rugby league. They wanted to play alongside Benji one day.

Whether in the schoolyard or on playing fields every weekend, kids were trying their own Benji steps and Benji flick passes.

However the lure of the All Blacks proved too strong, even for this legend of league.

Union failure

Rugby Union would be Benji’s greatest risk and greatest failure.

It was only a six month foray in 2014. A move that never quite got off the ground. From announcing he had signed with the Auckland Blues while still contracted to the Tigers, his heart never seemed in it.

He spent a total of three and a half hours on a rugby pitch. 

The game not suited to his style. Where Union is all field position, forward play, kicking to touch, Benji is about speed, vision, ball movement and bravado.

Risk is not Union’s thing.

Rugby league though can be a fickle sport. If you’re not with them then you’re against them, and Benji had defected to the mortal enemy.

Would he be welcomed back? Could he once again cut it in the NRL? Who would want him anyway?

The return

St George does. They’re desperate. They don’t have a halves partner for Gareth Widdop.

Benji arrives and the questions swirl.

Does he still have the magic?

Does he remember how to play the game?

His debut is poor to say the least. Passes are thrown into the crowd, kicks land out on the full and by the end of the match the crowd at Parramatta Stadium are jeering him.

“BENJI! BENJI! BENJI!”

His Dragons are belted 36-0. The magic isn’t there, the step is missing, the player once without a memory is seemingly recalling every mistake he’s made. He’s a passenger. Just another body out there.

He manages 15 games this season, but they’re not the 15 games of the magician he was once known as. St George miss the finals.

The following season he’s back. He’s Benji again. He finishes second to Johnathan Thurston on the Dally M tally. He leads the Dragons to the finals.

He’s getting older though. Like any player in their thirties, he’s looking for that one last chance.

One more shot at glory. One more campaign to taste victory in October. It’s a decade since he was last there.

In a twist of irony that is quintessentially rugby league, he runs out for his 250th match in the Red V, against the Tigers.

Questions come again in 2016 about his age. About his worth to the team.

There’s a certain coach who has been hearing the same calls about his own career for a decade. 

It’s the super coach Wayne Bennett. 

Benji heads north to Brisbane.

The ageing gunslinger joins the master tactician.

When does a player become the wily veteran though? Is there an age? Number of games? Or does a commentator slap the label on someone and it’s accepted as gospel?

Maybe you should ask Wayne Bennett? He’s seemingly always been the wily, old super coach.

Wayne has won seven premierships. But even he wants another chance. He wouldn’t be in the job otherwise.

As Benji gets older, he learns to alter his style. He’s still risk versus reward. But his risks are more calculated. He’s not at Brisbane to lead the side. He’s a backup player.

He fills in for injuries, suspension and comes off the bench. 

But Benji finds his groove. The groove he left behind at Leichhardt. New life is breathed into the gunslinger. 

He may not be quite as quick as he once was, but like Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven he’s more deliberate with each shot.

You can spray your target with bullets and hope one hits. Or you can take one well aimed shot.

Occasionally, Benji will still spray bullets.

Homecoming

Rugby league has a funny way with storylines. Some players stick around too long and watch as they change from hero to villain.

Others disappear in a flash. Sometimes a player is dug up from nowhere and becomes a superstar.

And on the odd occasion, a club legend returns.

For the Tigers it happened twice. Benji and Robbie. Re-uniting for one last chance.

But returning is never the same as it once was.

Just ask Wayne Bennett at Brisbane a second time round. Jarryd Hayne at Parramatta. 

The fans want them to succeed. The game wants them to succeed.

Is there any better sporting story than the prodigal son returning to lead their team to the promised land?

Reality is tough though. Fairytales don’t always happen and some would say the Tigers already had theirs.

In rugby league nothing ever really lasts. Feelings, moments – they’re all fleeting. Just like this homecoming.

Robbie retires at the end of 2019. He does so on one leg. 

But with Benji there… Well, he’s Benji. 

The flick pass, the side step. They’re there. He’s still got them. He just doesn’t use them as much. 

He’s the experienced head now.

Where Benji once partnered Scott Prince, now he partners Luke Brooks.

When Benji was the freakish kid, fresh on the scene, Brooks was at primary school. Now he’s next to him.

Brooks has been that freakish kid too. Unlike Benji, he hasn’t had his chance on the biggest stage yet. He may be one of those players who gets one in the twilight of his career, or not at all.

The game does that occasionally. It will take a kid, make them a superstar when they’re not ready and then cast them aside when they don’t live up to the hype they never asked for.

Benji could have become one of those players. Whose star shone bright but flamed out quickly.

He’s shown that persistence means something. 

But even persistence doesn’t guarantee anything.

Just ask Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh and Luke Burt. Like Benji they were fresh-faced kids when they made their first grand final.

For them it ended in heartbreak. Nearly a decade later they returned to that very same stage. This time as the veterans. One last chance at glory.

They didn’t experience glory that day either.

And for Benji, one final chance at glory won’t be with the Tigers.

What rugby league giveth, rugby league taketh.

The first time Benji left, the Tigers wanted him, but couldn’t keep him.

This time around, he wanted them, but they didn’t want him.

Leichhardt’s favourite son banished.

At the age of 35 he could be excused for thinking his final chance had gone. What club picks up a 35 year old half whose shoulders can barely hold together?

Most careers end here, or in England.

Then again, most 35 year old uncontracted halves aren’t Benji Marshall.

Benji’s not leaving though. He did that once and it didn’t work out. It’s all or nothing. The NRL is home, it’s where he belongs and where he wants to end his career.

Risk versus reward. Another Benji gamble.

Last hurrah

It’s unlikely Wayne Bennett is a gambling man. He’s a teetotaller after all, so why would you see him on the punt?

But that’s away from football.

When it comes to football, you bet Bennett doesn’t mind a gamble. 

Like Kenny Rogers, Wayne knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em.

He sacked Wally Lewis. He grabbed Alan Langer from Super League and stuck him in an Origin series.

He broke the Dragons’ premiership drought.

He took over the 2020 Maroons on short notice. Supposedly a team assured of defeat and he managed a series win with Brenko Lee and Kurt Capewell in the centres.

In many ways, Benji isn’t a gamble. This isn’t the first time Wayne has offered an ageing player one more shot at the title.

It’s not the first time he’s offered this player one more shot.

But it may be his last.

In another meandering NRL storyline – one we won’t know the destination of until the end of this year – both Benji and Wayne don’t have a contract beyond this season.

Is the master tactician set to retire?

Is the old gunslinger about to ride off into the sunset?

Will they cash in on one final chance or will they watch it slip away?

The end of both player and coach will be the end of an era for rugby league.

Wayne has been coaching longer than anyone before or probably ever will.

Benji’s career has spanned three NRL generations.

Fans don’t want either to leave.

Those that grew up with Wayne Bennett coaching Brisbane are desperately trying to hold onto their youth, remembering what it was like during the halcyon days of the 1990s and 2000s.

Benji is a reminder of the way the game used to be played.

A game of freer expression. Of less structure, less rigour, less examination and less worry. 

It’s the parallel many of his fans see in their own lives.

They grew up with Benji. They were kids enthralled by his magic, who would try to recreate that magic. 

They were the ones dubbing it the Benji flick pass, or the Benji side step. 

As a kid growing up in rugby league, he was irresistible to watch. Whether a Tigers fan or not, Benji made people fall in love with the game.

He was the player you loved to watch, even if he didn’t play for your team. Unless of course you were playing the Tigers, then you didn’t want to see Benji anywhere near the field.

Now they’ve grown up. They’ve got a life of more structure, more rigour, more examination and more worry.

If he goes, who have they got to remind them of a simpler time?

That simpler time of rugby league, when the Hoodoo Gurus were still singing That’s My Team, wrestling coaches were but a speck on the horizon, and there wasn’t a hint of Maroons Origin dominance.

When you’d go to the game on a Friday night, watch your team win and then race home to catch the delayed telecast so you could live it all again.

And if you lost, then dad probably made a detour to Dan Murphy’s on the way home.

Sure, the delayed telecast wasn’t a good thing for those at home, but that’s all that was on offer.

Legacy

In all likelihood Benji’s lining up for his final chance. One more bid to relive those feelings and experiences.

Alongside him are players who once watched him on TV. Players drawn in by his skill and exuberance. 

Some of them are their generation’s Benji. 

Latrell Mitchell was barely in school when his teammate was slicing open NRL defences. Now Mitchell inspires children.

Those kids who, once upon a time would be attempting a Benji step, are now celebrating tries with the kangaroo Latrell has made famous.

2021 looms as Benji Marshall’s final chance at a second premiership. Final chance for some magic. Final chance to witness the flick pass and the step.

With Cameron Smith gone, Marshall is the oldest player in the competition. Feels weird, doesn’t it?

Looking back

Back to that Sunday night in 2005 and Benji is pursued by Matt Bowen of the Cowboys. “Mango” is faster than Benji, he’s reeling him in.

Pat Richards, playing on a broken ankle looms up on the Tigers five-eighth’s left shoulder and changes direction to head in field.

Most players would try to kick the ball towards the posts, twist their bodies to try and throw a pass or hit the brakes and hope they aren’t taken into touch.

Benji though, like he’s back playing touch football in New Zealand, flicks the ball behind his back with his right hand and it lands on the chest of Richards.

The busted Tigers winger fends off a desperate Ty Williams as he crashes over to score a try still on NRL highlight reels every season.

It was Benji’s risk versus reward. It was his chance. It may be his only ever chance. 

Like he would for the rest of his career, he took that chance.

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