‘Arise Sir Benji’: Time to anoint Benji Marshall as New Zealand Rugby League Knight
OPINION: Forget that NRL Grand Final pass – although Wests Tigers fans never will.
It was Benji Marshall’s brilliance in the 2008 Rugby Union World Cup final that earned him a place alongside All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter on the New Zealand sports totem pole.
The curtain has fallen, after 346 games, on the career of the greatest Kiwi to play in the NRL. There will be no more final curtsies despite our clamor for an encore.
Who can fault Whakatāne’s prodigy for resting after 19 years of toil in one of the toughest sporting competitions in the world.
* NRL: Big kiwi Benji Marshall to announce retirement from rugby league
* NRL: Billy Slater urges clubs to sign Benji Marshall for top-tier 20th season
* NRL: Benji Marshall delays decision to retire after heartbreaking final loss
* Rabbitohs stars relish playing with Benji Marshall in 2021 NRL season
* NRL: Benji Marshall supported as biggest star in Kiwi rugby league in Australian poll
It’s mind boggling to think that Marshall won an NRL grand final in 2005, and excruciatingly approached another Sunday night, some sixteen years later.
Make no mistake, if this guy was born in the Bourke hinterland rather than the Bay of Plenty, Benji Marshall would be a future Rugby League Immortal.
Many Kiwis – Stacey Jones, Ruben Wiki, and Sonny Bill Williams included – have been NRL stars, but none have left such an iridescent and indelible mark on the rugby league’s global audience as Marshall.
Walk through an interview with any NRL star today and they’ll admit they grew up striving to emulate Benjamin Quentin Marshall, New Zealand’s biggest export to Australia from the economic rapprochement agreement.
Australians tend to regard the NRL as the pinnacle of the sport, which is why Marshall will be forever revered for this daring and outrageous unloading of Pat Richards’ title try in the Wests Tigers Grand Final against the Cowboys in 2005.
A Kiwi fig tree – still only 20 – picked up a Brett Hodgson ball in his own 20m zone.
Clapping on the afterburners, he passed a tackle, made another and burned a third before shooting a fourth.
As Richards looms, Marshall has launched the most skillful of interior passes, a creation with wispy wings so perfect it should always have its own gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
Richards ran away for one of the biggest tries of the grand finale of, arguably, the most exquisite assist of the event.
But it was a much more prosaic act that marked Marshall for an inevitable place in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame – his landmark try in the Kiwis’ first and only triumph in the Rugby Union World Cup final.
How good was Marshall on that November fireworks night in Brisbane?
He was an absolute cracker, his man of the moment crowned by creating and scoring the go-ahead.
Marshall bamboozled Billy Slater with a high kick. The Kangaroos full-back threw the ball into the field to avoid being hit by the beast, Manu Vatuvei.
Hiding like a hyperactive greyhound sniffing crumbs during a level 3 picnic, Marshall picked up the loose ball to point it happily.
Marshall’s score gave the Kiwis a 22-16 lead and the stalemate continued to pull the strings to wrap up their first win over Australia in nine tests.
Another towering bomb created the carnage that led to Adam Blair’s late try, and then an emotional Marshall jumped into Issac Luke’s arms at referee Ashley Klein’s final whistle.
Marshall’s virtuoso display must be seen in context. At just 23, he was the best on floor that day – which was no small feat when Australia fielded Slater, Greg Inglis, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith – all would-be Immortals.
The Australians had taken to “Bash Benji” – a secret campaign revealed by a kangaroo caring to a local compliant press.
The joke raised Marshall’s dander. Especially when the anonymous barker sang, the kiwi shook in his boots.
“When they said I was scared I was a little hurt because I don’t think I’m a scared player, I just lacked confidence [in earlier World Cup matches]Marshall said later.
“If anything, it helped me want to run the ball more and energized me.”
‘Bash Benji’ turned on him. The Australians have barely put their finger on him. They couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.
You should never forget that there were 16 other Kiwi heroes that night, including Nathan Fien and Lance Hohaia, Marshall’s sidekicks in the “Three Amigos”. But as good as the support numbers were, none matched the Whip Maestro.
Nobody makes a team, but could the Kiwis have beaten that crack Kangaroos outfit without Benji Marshall?
Would they have won this 34-20 victory, which remains one of the greatest results in New Zealand sporting history?
The Kiwis ‘feat is higher, for my money, than any of the All Blacks’ three final Rugby World Cup wins because the All Blacks were not underdogs. Only the Black Caps ‘recent victory in the World Test Championship against India comes close to matching the Kiwis’ victory over an iconic outfit with a better international record than the All Blacks.
Which brings us back to the comparison between Benji Marshall, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Marshall played longer than the two All Black legends. He was such a dazzling ball runner and skillful passer as Carter and needed to muster as much courage as McCaw to play for about 13 years after five shoulder reconstructions.
Now we have to make do with our memories. Still, a Marshall highlight reel would make Sir Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series look like a cinematic “short”.
Won’t this proud warrior Ngāi Tuhoe also remember his tears when asked to become captain of the Kiwis in 2019 after years in the wilderness? – be lost on our screens. Judging by its LNR 360 Appearances, Marshall is a television star in the making, the perfect successor to Peter Sterling, the prince of expert analysts who has just abdicated.
While his future life may be based on the other side of the Tasman, that shouldn’t stop the New Zealand government (which has criminally neglected the rugby league for ultimate national honors) from slapping Marshall on the shoulder in shouting, ‘Get up, Sir Benji’.