The new year is upon us and teams are only a few days away from resuming training for the 2022 season.
Benji Marshall changed everything.
His debut against Newcastle at Campbeltown Stadium in 2003 was the first sign that the ground was about to be pulled out from under us. This little kid with his pointy sideburns and diamante earring was going to move mountains… or sidestep them entirely.
In Benji’s first 50 minutes, we caught a glimpse of that famous cut-out pass, flooring the Newcastle defence to grant John Wilson a 47th-minute try. Then, from a beguiling line break, another one. “Geez, that young fellow can step, can’t he,” said referee Steve Clark to Bill Harrigan over the headset. The Tigers finished winners, Benji the star of the show.
Those who knew, and the Tigers’ hierarchy were quick to temper any undue pressure on the diamond they were just beginning to mine. “After a big win, and with all the attention he’s getting, we just don’t want him to get too far ahead of himself,” assistant coach Royce Simmons said after the game. “It’s not like this every week.”
But it wasn’t until the back half of 2005 that Benji really hacked deep into the genetics of the game, altering its DNA forever. He was just a baby, dragging Wests Tigers to a premiership they weren’t ready to win. Nobody was ready, I suppose. The no-look passes, the flicks, the steps - the pure joy with which he played felt genuinely revelatory. The gusto of it all still puts me in stitches.
I remember those heart attack Sunday arvos like they were yesterday. I remember dreaming of The Hill from my Canberra living room, shimmering on the telly like some holy temple as the gods looked on in laughter.
I remember a bloke hugging his missus in the stands at Bruce Stadium. “I love the Tigers,” he told her, tears in his eyes. I remember front row forwards twisting their ankles at footy training, trying to master the goosey.
Most of all, I remember the sacred faith we all held that no matter what the scoreboard or the clock said, it wasn’t over until Benji sang. If rugby league ever served champagne football, this was it.
Religious scholars say there’s no point in translating the word of God. To try is an exercise in mortal vanity, its perfection already divine. Maybe I’m being dumb, but I reckon what happened on the field during the 2005 grand final isn’t dissimilar.
It was alien, poetic. I won’t bother saying much else about it, but the game would never be the same. Neither would I, nor the millions of kids just like me.
But in the years that followed the club’s maiden premiership, injuries, dud seasons, and a renewed hope coalesced into the failure to launch that was Wests Tigers’ 2012 season. Tipped as favourites, they finished outside the eight. It was a disaster.
They’d already played their last finals series, and nobody knew it. Sheens got the arse, and talismans like Beau Ryan and Chris Heighnington somehow found themselves with a one-way ticket to Cronulla.
The following season, Benji left. In some ways, I still resent him for it. Cursed is he who follows Wests Tigers. And yet, here we were: led into the desert only for Moses to bail on us.
But even as Benji racked up games for St George and Brisbane, and Wests Tigers slid further into the quagmire they find themselves in today, I held on to the quiet belief that our Messiah would return. I reckon any Tigers fan who says they didn’t is full of sh*t.
In 2017, under Ivan Cleary, our prayers were answered. What transpired between then and now feels almost irrelevant. That the Tigers chose not to send Benji into that good night was ultimately a blessing.
They could never have given him the ending he deserved. Sure, he may have gone out in defeat, but Benji played his final minutes in an arena worthy of his stature. New champions are crowned every year, but only the luckiest get to say they won it against Benji.
Today’s superstars remember 2005 the same way I do. Or maybe they don’t. But they play like they do. Even at the highest level, you still catch front rowers trying the step on. I guess that’s what happens when a single person so fundamentally alters the course of a thing.
Today, Benji hangs up his boots. There are no more miracles, no new tricks. Still, I’ll be forever watching Benji, laughing (and crying) in disbelief.