A week after the Brumbies-Reds Super Rugby AU fans of both rugby codes got the chance to watch NRL powerhouses South Sydney Rabbitohs and Sydney Roosters in what should have been a titanic Round 20 match-up.
Benji Marshall made his Super Rugby debut this weekend and was a bright spark in a largely directionless Blues loss.
While he looked a little ineffectual at ruck time, he showed the leadership skills from his NRL days to get the Blues moving with a quick tap and then opened up the Highlanders defence (which had been solid) with a lovely cut out ball.
His input was valuable in the Tuipolotu try which almost got the Blues back into the game.
The Blues coach, John Kirwan, will be relieved that Marshall made such a positive debut as there is a train of thought going around that he has hamstrung his side by bringing in a novice who has to be selected because of the price paid for him and the marketing upside of having him in the 23.
However, Marshall came on when the Blues were mostly out of the game and the structure of the game had fallen apart.
If he harbours the desire to be a starting player (which he will need to be to get into the All Blacks) he will need to show that he can play the structured rugby (that includes territorial kicking) perfected by players like Dan Carter.
Marshall was an incredible rugby league player, up there with the greats in the game. So when speculating on how he will transition and what position would be best for him, it might be valuable to look at some other players that have made a similar switch and where they played.
Of course, every player is different, but we can compare skill sets and, to a lesser extent, achievements in each form of the game.
So, here are six case studies of players that have made the difficult play-maker switch in the past that might also point to the success or failure of Benji Marshall in rugby union.
1) Henry Paul
Similarities to Benji: New Zealander, played standoff in league and 10/12 in rugby, kicked goals and was New Zealand’s highest point scorer in a single game (before being eclipsed by Marshall.)
Success in League: Super League dream team 96, Super League finalist with Bradford 99. New Zealand National Squad.
Success in union: Zurich Premiership Player of the year nomination 2004, England National Squad 2002, 2004, England Sevens captain – Commonwealth Games medallist in 2006
Henry Paul, like Marshall, was a dominant player in his league days. He was slightly more robust than Marshall (and often played lock) but had a similar skill set that included a good range of passing and kicking skills.
Paul’s union transition started with a bang when he scored 28 points on debut for Gloucester, but he also ran into problems in his earlier days. He was selected for England in 2002, but was viewed as slightly flaky compared to English heroes, Johnny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall.
Paul had most of his union success with 7s and captained the English team that won the 2006 USA competition.
He returned toleaguein 2007.
2) Craig Gower
Similarities to Benji: Played five-eighth/halfback in league, played 10 in union, captained his club/country, Dally M winner, one time NRL premier.
Success in League: Penrith Panthers capt, Australia capt, NSW State of Origin, Dally M Hooker 2000, NRL Winner 2003, Italy National team 2013
Success in union: Italy National team 2009 – 2011
One big difference between Marshall and Gower was their position as a role-model, with Marshall being largely clean and Gower being a walking time bomb.
But despite the off-field drama and alcohol related incidents, Gower was one of Australia’s best league players in the early 2000s.
His switch to French rugby team Bayonne in 2007 probably had a lot to do with getting away from all the controversy in Australia. Despite that, he was selected into the Italian national team and showed a good understanding for the attacking and defensive duties of the 10 position.
He made a fairly good fist of his union sojourn but obviously missed the chaos and returned to league in 2012.
3) Tasesa Lavea
Similarities to Benji: Played rugby growing up, played standoff/halfback in league, played 10 in union, switched to the Blues, Dally M winner, one time NRL winner.
Success in League: one time NRL Champ with Melbourne in 1999, Dally M Rookie of the year 2000, New Zealand National Squad and record point scorer in 2000.
Success in union: Blues/Chiefs Club teams, Samoa National team 2010
Despite playing rugby growing up, Tasesa Lavea never had the same success in union as he did in League. He was the toast of Melbourne in the 1999 victory and was lauded for his goal kicking, but seemed to go off the boil after that and switched over to union in 2004.
He was rated in rugby and consistently made it into New Zealand Super Rugby teams but never ranked alongside the All Black 10s of the era, Carlos Spencer, Dan Carter and Nick Evans.
Lavea didn’t have the dynamic skill set or attacking instincts of Marshall and was more of a solid distributor and positional player which hampered his rise in the New Zealand union scene.
4) Matt Rogers
Similarities to Benji: Played rugby growing up, played center/fullback and standoff (occasionally) in league, played 10 in union, Dally M winner, greatest point scorer in club’s history (Cronulla).
Success in League: two time NRL finalist, Queensland State of Origin, Australian National Squad,leagueWorld Cup champion 2000,
Success in union: Waratahs, Australian National Team, World Cup finalist 2003,
Rogers is probably the most successful convert of this group and possibly the most successful convert that Australia has produced in the professional era.
Rogers was more of an outside back in both codes but also had a good all round game and found himself in the play-maker position on many occasions. He has gone on record as saying that he thinks that Marshall will succeed in union but sees his position as fullback more than 10.
5) Craig Wing
Similarities to Benji: Played halfback/standoff in League, one time NRL premier
Success in League: four time NRL finalist, NSW State of Origin, Australian National Squad
Success in union: Japanese National Team 2013
While never having the same profile as other league superstars, Craig Wing was an extremely successful rugby league player, being one of only a handful of players to play in four NRL finals.
He often played at hooker and had the same quick ball-playing skills that Marshall has.
He went to Japan in 2009 and was selected in the Japanese National team that upset Wales last year. Wing didn’t have the same lofty goals as Marshall in his switch, but his skill set quickly saw him transition to international rugby.
So, what to make of all this information? In rugby league, all of these players compared to Marshall in some way and all enjoyed lots of success.
However in rugby union, one could argue that only Matt Rogers really achieved the level of success that Benji wants to achieve. While this could be a bad omen for Marshall, the case for Henry Paul in 7s suggests that the shorter version of the game could be where he really finds his feet.
Another thing that the comparisons suggest is that 12 might be a better position for him.
Paul and Wing (as well as Sonny Bill Williams) found that the extra time at 12 away from roaming loose forwards allowed them to utilise their skills. But with the Blues having two All Blacks in the 12 position, Benji might find that a difficult spot to get into.
Also, I have a feeling that with Marshall being a long-time captain and a superstar in league, he will want to find the same recognition in union and the best place to do that will be 10.