Wednesday 23 August 2017 / 06:31 AM

Matured Marshall better than ever

It is the 63rd minute of Friday night’s clash between the Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra Dragons at Suncorp Stadium, and the Saints have possession 20 metres from their opposition’s line with the mercurial Benji Marshall stepping into dummy-half.

What happened next proves Marshall is a far superior player than the one he was when he won a premiership as a comparative novice with the Wests Tigers in 2005. You see, Marshall doesn’t even get the chance to pick up the ball. The fact he doesn’t get the ball means everything in this story.

The Marshall of old would have had the overriding call, but in 2014 things are different. On Friday night at that play-the-ball, at the very last moment English five-eight Gareth Widdop, realising it’s the last tackle, pushes Marshall to first receiver. The Benji of yesteryear would have held his ground and taken the play on himself. He would have skipped out of dummy-half and tried to create something from nothing and bamboozle the defence with a low-percentage play.

So Widdop pops the ball up to Marshall, who stabs a precision kick into the corner which pins Brisbane down at the southern end of the ground. The Broncos are forced to kick from deep within their own half, eventually leading to Benji with the ball in his hands again less than two minutes later. He’s back down Brisbane’s end, and this time with the pressure mounting on the Broncos’ scrambling defensive line he goes for the jugular. It’s the Benji from the highlight reels we all know so well. He puts through a deft grubber kick, which he regathers before offloading to a teammate; the Dragons play hot potato and score in the corner.

This was Marshall’s try in so many ways. And bravo to the veteran five-eighth, who has been in career-best form since returning to rugby league midway through the season after a forgettable tenure with the Auckland Blues Super Rugby franchise.

St George Illawarra fans should get excited, because although 2014 won’t reap any finals rewards, 2015 is a tantalising prospect with the Marshall/Widdop combination and a star-studded backline outside them ready to truly challenge for a title once more.

But this weekend’s match shouldn’t be the final time we see Benji this year.

There is, after all, a Four Nations tournament to be played at the end of the season, and with Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess leaving the code, the international game needs all the star power it can get. Enter Benji Marshall.

Who better to judge Marshall’s representative chances than Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney, who runs the water for the Broncos and was there first-hand to see Marshall in action last Friday.

“I had a brief chat to him [Kearney] after the game against the Broncos on the weekend,” Marshall told The Illawarra Mercury.

“We didn’t really talk about that [Test selection] too much, it was more about how I was going and how I was feeling and seeing if I was happy.

“Hopefully that leads to being selected but if it doesn’t it’s not the end of the world for me.

“For me, I grew up dreaming of that and I’ve had the opportunity to do it and hopefully I get to do it again. Representing your country is the highest honour in the game and if it comes my way I’ll take it.

“It’s always in the back of your mind to represent your country but it wasn’t in the back of mine coming back here.”

After the fiasco that was New Zealand’s selection policy for the ANZAC match earlier this year, surely the 2008 World Cup champions must pick their very best talent and that includes Benji Marshall.

Brilliant Manly five-eighth Kieran Foran and the Warriors’ halfback superstar Shaun Johnson would appear to have dibs on the Kiwi halves spots, but Marshall’s experience and new-found poise – along with the familiar flashes of individual genius – can play a key role in an intriguing Four Nations competition.

 

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Curtis Woodward

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