There’s been a lot of questions raised in recent times about what is the right age for players to be allowed to debut in first grade.
But I’d like to focus on some of the game’s senior citizens who continue to defy the ageing process. Following the recent retirement of Cameron Smith at age 37, the NRL’s four elder statesmen at the moment are:
1. Benji Marshall, at 36 years and around 38 days.
2. Iosia Soliola, at 34 years and some 243 days.
3. Brett Morris, at 34 years and about 224 days.
4. Josh Morris, the same age as twin brother Brett.
So what is it with these players? How are they still producing the goods week-after-week after all these years? How did they get here? How long can they keep going?
Today we’ll look at Benji Marshall.
Marshall made his first-grade debut for Wests Tigers as an 18-year-old towards the end of the 2003 season when he came off the bench to replace fullback Robert Miles. He followed that up with three games at halfback that season and seven games in first grade in an injury-interrupted 2004 season, before firmly establishing himself as Wests’ 5/8 in the 2005 season.
He was part of the best spine in the competition in that year alongside Brett Hodgson, Scott Prince and Robbie Farah. He gained selection for NZ, and Wests went on to defeat the Cowboys in the grand final after ‘that flick pass’ from Marshall to Pat Richards. All this at just 20 years of age.
Despite ongoing injuries, Marshall continued to dominate the competition for the next seven years and captained his country for five of them.
However, in 2013, Marshall’s form began to wane as did his relationship with coach Mick Potter, and he was dropped from the starting 13 for the first time. It looked like his career at the top was over at the age of 28, even more so when he headed to New Zealand Rugby in 2014 for what could only be described as a brief and unsuccessful sojourn.
Marshall returned to league in 2014, spending the next few seasons with St George and had an excellent year in 2015, guiding the Dragons as far as the elimination final. His contract wasn’t extended after 2016 though, and it looked like his career had ground to a halt once again, now at the age of 31.
Enter Wayne Bennett, who threw Marshall a lifeline with the Brisbane Broncos, where he spent an unremarkable 2017 season filling holes in their roster and often playing off the bench.
In 2018, now aged 33, he returned home to the Wests Tigers after a five-year absence, once again hooking up with Robbie Farah, who rejoined the club mid-season. 2019 saw Marshall produce some of his best-ever form, good enough to see him return to the New Zealand Test team as captain after a seven-year absence, a remarkable achievement for a 34-year-old.
In 2020, with Farah now retired, Marshall formed an effective attacking combination with rookie hooker-for-hire Harry Grant, and between them, they were responsible for most of what little was good about the Tigers’ attack. Marshall played 16 games for the club that year before injury ruled him out in Round 20, and he even took over the goal-kicking role when required.
Despite protests from the Wests faithful, the Tigers didn’t extend Marshall’s contract, and with little interest from any other NRL clubs, it looked once again like his career was over at 35.
Marshall didn’t give up hope though, and at the 11th hour South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett stepped forward once more with a lifeline, signing Marshall for the 2021 season, his 19th season in the NRL, making Marshall the only player other than Cameron Smith to play 19 seasons. Many pundits thought this a strange move on Bennett’s part given the existing strength of the South’s spine, but so far it looks like a masterstroke and playing Marshall off the bench has added another dimension to their already impressive attack when he comes on.
So where to from here for Marshall? You would have to think that this is his last season, but we’ve been wrong on that count before. With 328 first-grade games under his belt Marshall currently sits in 16th place on the list of most NRL games played. Just 12 more games this year will take him to 340 games and put him in eighth place, and if he goes around again next year, just a further 15 games will put him into third place behind Cameron Smith (430) and Cooper Cronk (372). Don’t rule it out.
My view is that this will be Marshall’s last season, particularly if Souths can win the premiership. If Souths are successful, and Marshall is part of the victory, he will have his second premiership 17 seasons after his first. A remarkable feat.
The thing about Benji and what keeps him going year after year is his self-belief, his never-say-die attitude and his ability to adapt his game over time.
Marshall is never beaten on the field and backs himself at every opportunity. He’s not afraid to push boundaries, even if it doesn’t always result in success. It will be interesting to see how far he can take it this year, and who knows, maybe next year as well.