I’ll cut straight to the chase.
The prince, the king, the prodigal son will return home to the Tigers in 2018.
Amidst the plethora of signings the Tigers have made for next season and beyond, Benji Marshall is the one that really counts.
That sentence has probably left a lot of readers scratching their heads. The Tigers have of course already signed an ultra-consistent former Queensland origin second-rower in Chris McQueen; one of New Zealand’s best props of the past 20 years in Ben Matulino; and, in the very position that Marshall plays, the signature of New South Wales’ drought-breaking origin five-eighth Josh Reynolds was wrapped up months ago.
So why is the signing of a 32-year-old now fringe first-grader on his third chance a masterstroke?
Put simply, it’s one for the fans.
In many ways 2017 has been the season from hell for the Wests Tigers.
Before a ball was touched this season, Kyle Lovett was embroiled in a cocaine saga and Tim Simona disgraced the NRL and his teammates. Progress to the season proper and their ‘superstar’ playmaker Mitch Moses jumped ship, and by just round three their head coach was unceremoniously axed. That’s all combined with a 5-15 win-loss record that has them sitting 16th.
Even before 2017 fans had become disgruntled. Stars like Blake Austin, Te Maire Martin Josh Addo Carr and Nathan Brown had all been shipped off to accommodate the supposed big four. Hell, even Benji himself was put on the scrap heap to ensure the ‘long term’ playmaking future of the club – Brooks and Moses could be retained. And come 2017 only Brooks, the least developed of the bunch, remains.
To not so eloquently put it, that’s a lot to stomach. But the return of a legend to the club? That’s food for the soul.
First and foremost, anyone who has kept a close eye on Benji since his move to Queensland will know that he is actually playing some excellent football.
The deft touch remains. His running game, which was almost entirely absent when he was at the Dragons, has also returned, and he has done enough to appear ten times to date for the Broncos, including an extended layoff due to injury, and in the process contributed to Ben Hunt’s demotion to the Queensland Cup.
Sure, he is far from his 2010 golden boot days or the sheer brilliance of 2005, but this is a player who still has a lot to offer on the field.
However, his biggest contribution will be behind the scenes.
The return of Marshall is a public relations masterpiece. For many Tigers fans 2017, more so than any other season, has truly tested the passion for a club a supporter can have.
Ivan Cleary has certainly helped to restore some of that in the back end of the season with the addition of several midseason signings and by promoting deserving youngsters like Matt Eisenhuth and Esan Marsters – but an uncertain future is still an uncomfortable one.
Despite a raft of good quality signings, it’s hard to imagine one of those new players as a source of singular excitement – a player to get the couch fan out to the ground.
Can you imagine Marshall emerging from the tunnel to the hallowed turf of Leichardt, 20,000-plus fans screaming in adoration, that excitement, that passion, that hope returned? I can.
He may push for a spot in the halves, do a job at centre or continue his utility role off the bench – Marshall’s spot in the match day 17 is an unclear one. What is abundantly apparent, however, is that the guidance to the squad, membership increase, faith restoral and merchandise overload that will flow from the acquisition of Marshall cannot be understated.
He might not win them a premiership, but he will win back the hearts of a lot of disillusioned fans, and in the midst of so much change, it’s good to see a familiar face.
Welcome home, Benji.