Can Benji Marshall make it in rugby union?
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Before we answer the question, we need to establish whether he will turn to what rugby league followers now think of as the dark side. And the most likely answer to this is that when his Tigers contract runs out at the end of 2009, he will take up an offer to play rugby union. Probably in Japan.
The Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting story stating that if Marshall does play rugby union in Japan he could come back to rugby league. The mechanics behind this is that the Japanese Top League rugby season runs from September to February. This timetable would allow Marshall the chance to come back to the rugby league code if, for whatever reason, he wants to do this.
But, of course, the Super 14 season (by 2011, a Super 15 or up to 18, with a Japanese team as a likely starter) also begins in February.
My feeling is that if Marshall does make the jump in codes, he will want to carry on in rugby union and achieve his ambition to become an All Black. This is the same sort of ambition that Sonny Bill Williams (remember him?) has and, most importantly, Brad Thorn had.
Australians don’t generally understand the mystique that the All Blacks jersey has for New Zealanders. It is one of the most powerful emotions New Zealand males can have. Moreover, the All Blacks jersey marks a person out, identifies them as having achieved something wonderful, for the rest of their life.
You can see this in the business world, even in Australia.
Whenever there is talk, say, of David Kirk, he is invariably referred to as “the former All Blacks captain.” Is Michael Hawker, another former rugby player who has had a successful business career, invariably referred to as “the former Wallaby great?”
So if Marshall does make the jump, does he have the skills and the ticker to fulfill his ambition and become an All Black?
All this is hypothetical, of course, but right now you’d say this ambition can be realised. He has a background in rugby, which should be a help (but wasn’t much of a help for Mat Rogers).
He has the skill set and the ticker to make the transition to the rugby union code. He showed both the skills and the ticker in the Rugby League World Cup Final against the Kangaroos. It was when Marshall took on the line and exposed his battered shoulders to the ferocious intent of the Paul Gallens and the other big hitters that the Kiwis fractured the Kangaroos line and set up tries.
My guess is that his best position in rugby union would either at fullback or on the wing, as a Shane Williams type of runner coming into the line after some phases and bewildering the big forwards trying to block up the middle of the field.
I can’t see him being a successful union five-eights.
We’ve seen Rogers fail in this position and on Saturday, playing for Stade Francaise against the rampant Harlequins, we saw Mark Gasnier, admittedly coming on as a reserve, making an awful hash of the five-eights and then centres position.
Gasnier’s problem, and it is a problem that most rugby league players coming to rugby union face, is that his skill level in handling and passing was not up to the lack of space and time rugby union players have to confront when they get the ball.
Also, his kicking skills, based on quick, accurate readings of the situations in front of him, are non-existent.
When you contrast Gasnier, seemingly leaden-footed and leaden-minded (a bit like Fracnois Steyne in the Barbarians-Wallaby game), with Nick Evans masterminding the Harlequins around the field and putting them in the situation where they were able to snatch an unlikely victory, you realise the great difference between the two codes.
Great players in one code will not necessarily be great players in the other code.
In fact, what we have seen in Australia and New Zealand, and especially since the ELVs, is that the old adage that backs can make the switch from either code more easily than forwards no longer applies.
Lote Tuqiri has made a ‘successful’ switch, but in my opinion on impact around the field, he is behind Peter Hynes, Digby Ione and probably Lachlan Turner. Like George Gregan in his later years, Tuqiri’s main value to the side is pyschological.
He is a reassuring figure to the younger players who may be inspired just by his presence to lift their own game.
The two best switchers from league to union in these parts in recent years have been Brad Thorn, who has become the rock of the All Blacks pack, and Rocky Elsom, whose ferocious tackling and running and general aggro in his play was missed by the Wallabies, especially in the Bledisloe Test in Hong Kong and the Test against Wales.
If this analysis is correct, rugby clubs in Europe and Japan, the ARU and the NZRU might look more favorably on players like Frank Pritchard (my pick for a successful conversion to the other side) and other tough league forwards rather than to the backs like Marshall and, certainly, Gasnier.
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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.