Back in 2003, I was a butter-fingered winger for the Newcastle representative touch football team. Playing in the link position (one in from the wingers) for the crazily dominant Western Suburbs team was a livewire Australian representative who had recently made his NRL debut in Benji Marshall.
The State Cup arrived, and our side, with more realistic ambitions in the bars of host city Port Macquarie than on-field, nervously scanned the teams in our just-drawn pool. The news was bad.
“Don’t worry,” I explained to my teammates. “Benji only steps off his left foot.”
Without having Foxtel at home, that statement was made using hope as evidence.
Our lead-in game was against Bowral, the worst possible tune-up. Their approach to the tournament was summed up by their uniforms of Simpsons pyjamas. Did I mention that the tournament was held on the first weekend of December?
Tries in touch football are referred to as touchdowns. In that game, my opposing winger ran in a touchdown off a perfect 40-metre spiral from their improvised quarterback. I’m not sure who was the bigger spoilsport: the referee for blowing a penalty for the blatantly forward pass, or me for not playing along by chasing in defence.
Wests, though, were a class above. We were trying hard but the scoreboard was ticking in their favour. Scarily, and arrogantly in a sport with liberally-used unlimited interchange, Marshall was yet to be injected into proceedings.
Around ten minutes in, he entered on my side of the field with Wests in possession. Isaac Skillen, the link inside me who I can’t resist naming right now, called “Go in!” as he scampered onto my wing like a lion outside of Kansas. Great, a professional athlete as my direct opponent…
We’re backpedalling, and the ball is passed to Benji. He runs at me and steps off his left foot. No problem, I’m ready for this, nice and balanced. Then comes a right foot step. Hmm, I wasn’t expecting that but I can still readjust. And then a second left foot step… I’m on the ground now as Marshall sails past, my teammates in cover defence coming to the rescue.
It was probably just my imagination, but Marshall seemed to target me for the rest of the game, possibly to toy with me like a cat with a wounded mouse, or with a point to prove because I somehow didn’t allow him in for a touchdown.
Our team as a whole wasn’t so lucky. We went down 10-0, our worst ever loss.
The following 24 hours were noteworthy. Benji Marshall scored six times in an 8-2 grand final win. I, meanwhile, had too many shandies and unwittingly cut a teammate’s grass at a nightclub.
Congratulations on a magnificent career, Benji. You left a lot of great players looking like amateurs, and left a lot of amateurs clutching at thin air.