I’m not a wanton smart aleck. Not really. I’ll make a play if it’s there, but I haven’t been stacking zingers ever since Benji Marshall read the writing on the Eden Park change-room wall.
Quite the opposite. I’m a Tigers fan and a Benji man; possessed of a fetish strong enough so as to confuse identity and rustle trousers.
‘Man-crushes’ didn’t exist when he threw that flick-pass in the 2005 NRL grand final, and no equivalent term had been devised to grant indemnity. Male heterosexual Wests Tigers fans will know what of I speak.
It was real love and it was awkward.
So as the news broke that Marshall would seek (and swiftly receive) absolution of his Auckland Blues Super Rugby franchise contract, I searched for the portents of dissociation.
I searched for those telling signs that club and player were about to ‘consciously uncouple’.
I found that Benji spoke of “the technicalities around rucks” and the “defensive line being a lot closer” with the stoicism of a mariner battening down for tempest. Coach Sir John Kirwan permitted praise and canvassed his suitability for the challenge.
“I think the way he’s handled it has been unbelievable” claimed the All Black legend, insisting that “he’s going to be a real success in this game”.
Sir John, please; give us a spell. He was ex-Wallaby turned South East Queensland Crusher Garrick Morgan in reverse. Couple of Monteiths deep and you’d admit it.
And so our lists compile. Is he the worst ‘convert’ of the professional era?
Israel Folau proceeds with his atonement – try by line-shredding try – and is entitled to believe we might forget his luxuriated ordeal in that sleeveless orange straitjacket.
Moreover, he doesn’t get the nightmares anymore, because ‘mark’ is the bloke that does his gardening and ‘rover’ fetches the newspaper in the morning. Greater Western Sydney unlocked the cell.
If he were to counsel Benji, he’d be bound to posit thus – sweet redemption is but a back-loaded, performance-based NRL contract away.
Even if he were, we ought temper our derision. There’s been dumber, fresher ‘challenges’ undertaken by venerated sportspeople before. So cut Benji some slack and recall the five worst sport-swappers of all time.
5. Carl Lewis – Athletics to basketball/American football
The IOC’s Sportsman of the Century contemplated defection in 1984. Despite triple gold at the 1983 Helsinki World Athletics Championships – and the USA’s first summer Olympiad in 52 years nestled neatly on the agenda – Lewis enlisted for the NBA and NFL Drafts just weeks before the Games.
The Chicago Bulls endorsed him via 10th Round selection (some doe-eyed rookie called Michael Jordan had assumed Round 1, Pick 3) but sneaker never smudged pine in a competitive fixture.
The Dallas Cowboys took him Round 12, only to refrain from a contract. And frankly; it was just as well. When it comes to vocational reflection – the hanging up of boots, the divestment of the gavel, or the surrender of the service weapon – Carl has more to dwell upon than most.
Ten Olympic medals (nine Gold), eight World Championship titles, and a decade undefeated in the long jump. Athletics’ amateur status supplies a motive, but that he even thought about a sport-swap installs him here.
4. Michael Jordan – Basketball to baseball
That aforementioned draftee basketballer. While Bugs Bunny received (and indubitably deserved) top billing in Warner Bros’ 1996 atrocity SpaceJam, most astute judges rate Jordan’s the superior jump shot.
The ethereal Chicago Bulls shooting guard had already become a three-time NBA Champion, three-time Overall and Finals MVP, nine-time NBA All-Star and dual Olympic gold medalist when he jeopardised cosmic order by hatching retirement plans in October 1993.
No athlete would’ve ever absconded from a richer, riper prime. Ravaged by grief (his father recently murdered) and bombastic, light bulb-busting scrutiny, he fouled out and shot the tunnel.
Four months later, as if colluding with some hapless geezer with a pound lodged on a fantastical Ladbrokes novelty bet, he declared himself a baseballer.
Jordan became the most interesting Birmingham Baron and Scottsdale Scorpion that ever spat – per medium of a Chicago White Sox minor league contract – before dispatching a two-word media release in March 1995 so as to draw a line: “I’m back”.
And so it proved; for three more NBA Championships and Finals Series MVPs, and acclamation which might yet exceed the looming messianic Rapture.
3. Greg LeMond – Cycling to Motor Racing
The consummate Californian was one of those sporting double agents. He was cherished abroad but unobserved at home.
He could’ve swanned into a Kansas City McDonald’s during his bike-riding zenith and nary turned a bulbous neck. A high school quarterback would’ve garnered more attention.
But three-time Tour de France and dual UCI world road race Champions probably don’t supply themselves unto the Golden Arches very often.
In 1986, ‘L’Americain’ – as a rhapsodic French press pack so pronounced him – became the first non-European rider to stow a yellow jersey (Maillot Jeune, s’il vous plait) as a General Classification (overall) winner.
He replicated the deed in 1989, defended in 1990 and has resumed his mantle as the United States’ only Tour de France champion.
Ask Floyd Landis or some bloke called Lance Armstrong about that.
His reticence to propel a bicycle up Mont Ventoux seemed to coincide with the discovery of motorised vehicles, replete with a ‘magic pedal’. They went faster and didn’t compel occupants to visit purgatory along the ride, or so he must’ve reckoned.
Notwithstanding the novelty factor – and his contention with muscular disease – he drove a Formula Ford as if augmented by pretty ribbons and a bell.
2. Ivan Lendl – Tennis to golf
In 1987, a flint-hard Aussie hero snarled his way past sport’s archetypal bogeyman, rendering him as lawn clippings dumped fecklessly upon the Wimbledon centre court.
They called him Ivan Lendl, his nemesis Patrick Cash. Posterity would serve him eight Grand Slam singles titles, five ATP Tour Finals Championships (and 94 ATP Tour tournament victories), a Davis Cup with native Czechoslovakia and 270 weeks spent perched atop tennis’ world rankings.
If it’s lonely at the top, Lendl’s the guy that draws the curtains and pours another scotch. But house guests (however rare) won’t find a Wimbledon trophy in his jug room (that one missing in the set), and he never played a ‘Gentlemen’s Singles Final’ at the All England Club again.
Twenty-one years later, slumped over a mineral water at Connecticut’s Wethersfield Country Club, he sat contemplating elimination from a US Open preliminary qualification event. The US Open Golf Championships, that is.
After five pro-tourney appearances, a bundle of doomed Open tilts, and an alternative set of blisters, the progenitor of modern tennis’ professional protocol conceded blood and aspiration didn’t always get it done.
1. Dwain Chambers – Athletics to American football/rugby league
Indeed, this list has been deliberately ranked. Britain’s 2010 60-metre World Indoor Champion and third-fastest 100-metre runner ever is the worst sport-swapper of all-time.
A 1997 junior world record and a fourth-placed Olympic debut (Sydney 2000) positioned him to the hindquarters of the elite. But that venal little vial whispered his name – and Dwain heeded – selecting the pathway craven drug cheats tend to take. He tested positive to steroid THG in 2003 and incurred a two-year blanket competition ban.
He was IOC-blacklisted for life (subsequently revoked), and compelled to forfeit his 2002 European Championships 4x100m gold medal.
His relay teammates were obliged to follow suit, and the record books expunged. How else can tainted speed be as facility to remuneration?
There was a 2004 San Francisco Giants (NFL) trial and a 2007 Hamburg Sea Devils (NFL Europa League) contract – albeit soon defunct – strewn among athletics meets upon return.
There were the celebrity reality TV show gigs, the gormless chat show confessions, but 2008 threw up the most lamentable plotline of all.
Super League’s Castleford Tigers offered him a jersey, perhaps unaware he might sport the temerity to try it on. His reserve grade knock-up debut was prosecuted via four stints beached on a wing.
He tried the tackling caper, stuffed his shoulder and went looking for an autobiographical ghost-writer. Ex-Balmain Tiger Darren Clark could’ve scoffed with justification.
But the Greatest Game of All can giveth, just as it taketh away. Gifts like validation, purpose, and performance-based, back-loaded contracts. Someone will be hoping so.
As for my advice to the prodigal Kiwi?
Count your teammates, Benji. Incorporate it into your pre-match routine. More than twelve will constitute a problem. Hit the burners, step the bench, and keep selling dummies all the way to the car park. Go home Benji, you’re rugby league.