Manly have a chance to move into the top four and make 2019 exceedingly difficult for the Wests Tigers when they meet at Brookvale on Thursday night.
There was a time when I was cold on Benji Marshall. I thought he had become a selfish, underperforming, overrated rugby league player.
It was 2013, the famous jump sidestep was a distant memory. The speed that enabled him to run the length of the field and flick a pass to Pat Richards for a try in a grand final was unlikely to return.
He was overweight and uninterested. What irked me most about mid-career or ‘second phase’ Benji was that he didn’t seem to be a team player anymore.
At the time he put unnecessary pressure on his teammates. Firing passes at them when they were not in the best position to receive the ball. It wasn’t uncommon for the footy to be spilled or go sailing over the sideline. It seemed like he was unwilling to run the ball or make tackles.
When Benji made his much celebrated return to Concord in 2018 via the Auckland Blues, St George Illawarra Dragons and Brisbane Broncos, the demons in his play had vanished.
Memories of the dark days sitting on the bench under then coach Mick Potter were wiped away last year to reveal a leader that could lock out a game or initiate a potential match-winning play. Current teammates speak glowingly of Marshall’s contribution as a mentor at training.
He was eventually joined by good mate Robbie Farah on his return ‘home’ in 2018. Both players debuted for the Wests Tigers in 2003, won a premiership together in 2005, then suffered a period of being ostracised. Both were identified as players that didn’t meet the coach’s requirements at different stages of their careers.
It was a large boost for the club and fans to see the two legends back together in the black, white and gold.
‘First phase’ Benji was an extremely confident, some might say cocky young schoolboy, who played first grade while still completing year 12 at Keebra Park High School.
A rugby union and touch football star who came to rugby league by chance, he was unhindered by the club junior development systems that often tempers the style of risk taking players. The ‘percentage rugby league’ error-minimising coaching philosophy starts early.
It’s hard to say Marshall changed the way rugby league was played. No player has emulated the sidestep, lightning feet, flick passes and anticipation he possessed early in his career. Shaun Johnson and Kalyn Ponga spring to mind as players that might go close.
A favourite moment was watching him tear Cronulla’s defence to shreds at Shark Park in 2005, the year the Wests Tigers won their first and only premiership. He was virtually untouchable on that day.
Kids were drawn to the sport and the Wests Tigers by his flamboyant play and the ease with which he could break a defensive line. It was colourful rugby league at its best.
His career has been hampered by injury. So much so, that after five shoulder reconstructions he seriously considered retirement. It seemed that his naturally slight frame was not suited to top level rugby league.
Nowadays he is more likely to succumb to a dodgy hamstring. An injury that often plagues athletes at Marshall’s current 34-year vintage.
Benji and Robbie will make a decision in the next few weeks on whether they continue to play on after this season.
At 300 NRL club games, 28 international matches and 99 tries if we include one for the NRL All Stars, Marshall is entitled to walk away from the game a happy and satisfied man. To put icing on the cake he has kicked 445 goals. He even crossed the line once during his very short Super Rugby career.
He has the attributes to make a decent fist of coaching and it would be no surprise if the Wests Tigers offer him a role once he pulls the pin on his playing career.
Last weekend was a round for milestones with fellow rugby league veterans Cameron Smith (400) and Gavin Cooper (300) also celebrating their contributions to the sport.
The NRL media team released a video in the lead up to Benji’s 300th game at Bankwest. It was shot in the dressing room of his favourite ground, Leichhardt Oval. As Marshall greeted family, players and coaches that had an influence on his career, he was reduced to tears. Fans described similar reactions on social media after viewing the emotional footage.
Unlike Smith and Cooper, Benji’s team couldn’t find him a win at Parramatta on Sunday in front of 24,000 people.
A combination of crucial errors and inadequate goal kicking saw the Eels run out worthy winners despite both teams scoring four tries.
The Kiwi five eighth delivered a solid performance on Sunday. A couple of his trademark skips across the field before straightening up and passing led to tries. He crossed the stripe himself at one point only to be held up. The fairytale wasn’t to be.
After the match, a mature and humble ‘third phase’ Benji told the media he didn’t particularly like all the attention and would rather be enjoying a win for his beloved club.
This is what the fans want to hear. Benji should continue to play in 2020 and beyond if the body and mind are willing. He has plenty to offer the game and his teammates at club and international level.
It would also make a damn good final chapter in his multifaceted rugby league story.