The thrilling rugby league career of Benji Marshall

Longevity doesn’t always enhance an athlete’s legacy. Few New Zealanders, particularly those in team sports, can compare with All Black Richie McCaw.

Rabbitohs Benji Marshall in action during the NRL Qualifying Final against the Penrith Panthers at the end of September.
Photo: Photosport

For sustained excellence – along with a fairytale Rugby World Cup-winning finish – McCaw’s career is hard to top.

Cricketer Ross Taylor is a man in the final innings’ of a storied career. At 37, he’s arguably not in his absolute pomp as a batsman, but he’s close, and played an important part in New Zealand’s recent World Test Championship triumph over India.

Which brings us to Benji Marshall.

At 36, Marshall announced his retirement from rugby league this week, just days after being part of the South Sydney team that lost 14-12 to Penrith in the NRL grand final.

It’s not long ago that Marshall didn’t look like he’d play in 2021. The Wests Tigers, for whom the halfback or five-eighth had won a grand final in 2005, dispensed with his services for this season and no other club had picked him up.

A last ditch call to Souths coach Wayne Bennett, who had coached Marshall in the Kiwis, Brisbane Broncos and NRL All-Stars sides, saw him belatedly signed as a utility.

Marshall quickly became an admired figure at Souths, for his qualities as a man, teammate and mentor to younger players. On the field, though, he was a peripheral figure in the club’s success.

It’s hard not to like Marshall.

As a younger man, he set the NRL alight. Five serious shoulder injuries would’ve spelled the end of many rugby league careers, but Marshall didn’t succumb to the doubt and pain and fear and built a body better able to withstand the rigours of the game.

He’ll forever be remembered for helping Wests Tigers win their only NRL title, along with captaining the Kiwis to 2008 Rugby League World Cup glory.

Along the way he thrilled and inspired countless fans and aspiring players, all while carrying himself extremely well off the field.

Marshall has enjoyed a very strong television and radio presence as a player and you imagine he’ll excel in a fulltime media role. If coaching appeals, then he’s well-equipped to enter that arena too.

But as people reflect on his career and contribution to the game – and when the highlight reels are rolled out – it’s all about those early years. The world cup, the NRL title, the 2010 Golden Boot as the code’s best player, the 2011 Dally M five-eighth of the year win.

People can talk of Marshall as a future Immortal – which is the game’s highest honour – or mention knighthoods. They can proclaim him the finest New Zealand player ever, even if that honour arguably belongs to Mark Graham.

But they do so on the basis of his first incarnation as a Tiger, from 2003-2013.

The years since, spent playing Super Rugby at the Blues and then at the St George Illawarra Dragons, Broncos, Tigers (again) and now Rabbitohs aren’t the ones people mention.

There were times when he produced performances that had folk saying he’d turned back the clock or had looked like the Benji of old, but they weren’t the norm. His best days were behind him and everyone could see that.

It speaks volumes of the man that he remained a good professional. That he recognised the deterioration in his own game and didn’t become a disruptive figure.

Many stars struggle when their playing powers become diminished. They behave like Divas and complain to sympathetic ears in the media or seek to undermine teammates.

Marshall, with this season at Souths being typical, recognised that there were better clubmates in his position. He realised he was a support act, not a star, and played that role with aplomb.

In watching Marshall announce his retirement, the thing that stood out was the esteem in which his teammates held him and his own love and respect for them. That’s especially true of the relationship between he and coach Bennett too.

Benji Marshall has enjoyed an outstanding rugby league career. To last 19 seasons, 346 NRL games and 31 tests is sensational.

When you add in a world cup and Four-Nations title, along with the various individual awards, you are talking about a genuine great of the game.

Australians tend to fixate on their own, but their regard for Marshall exemplifies what a very good player he’s been.

He hasn’t gone out on top or with a storybook ending. But he went – as he said himself – on his own terms and with his head held high.

Few athletes can ask for more than that.

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