Benji Marshall stripped of Kiwis captaincy
GLENN JACKSON AND FRED WOODCOCK
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Benji Marshall says he is disappointed at being stripped of the New Zealand captaincy, but maintains the decision will not alter his desire to win the World Cup with the Kiwis at the end of this year.
Marshall, the Wests Tigers five-eighth who helped the Kiwis to a World Cup triumph in 2008, was relieved of the captaincy by coach Stephen Kearney, who said the decision was made in the best interests of the team.
Marshall said it was a decision ''I'm just going to have to live with''.
"Obviously it's disappointing,'' Marshall said. "You wouldn't be human if you didn't feel some sort of disappointment at not being able to captain your country again.
"The decision was Steve's and the New Zealand Rugby League's, and it's just a decision I'm just going to have to live with. At the end of the day I'm still an integral part of the New Zealand rugby league team. I've still got a job to do to help in the World Cup. That's not going to change.
"Not having a 'C' next to my name is going to be different, but that's not going to change me as a person or as a leader. If anything, I'm just going to have to be more up front and lead from the front a bit more, without having the captaincy. It's not the end of the world. The decision's been made, and we all have to move on. That starts with me.
"It was the proudest moment of my career, captaining my country. I was lucky enough that I got to break the record for most caps as Kiwi captain. But I've still got a job to do for the New Zealand Rugby League and that's to win the World Cup.''
Kearney described it as a ''very tough'' conversation, but the decision had been made to give the Wests Tigers star every chance of being at his best as New Zealand look to defend the title they won in 2008, when Marshall had a tremendous impact on the tournament.
Marshall wanted to continue as captain.
Tony Kemp, the NZRL's general manager of high performance, said Marshall's workload in rugby league was ''massive'', because of his status as one of the game's best, and this decision would ease that workload.
He insisted there was ''no bad blood at all'' between Marshall and Kearney following the decision.
''He's upset. He's immensely proud to be Kiwis captain and we're all feeling for him, but there's a bigger picture here,'' Kemp said of Marshall's state of mind.
''He's had a lot of adversity in his career and historically he's bounced back really well every time so we are expecting no different here.
"Our respect for him is immense and we appreciate that he's hurting now, but we believe this decision will ultimately lift some weight from Benji and give the Kiwis every opportunity to defend the World Cup.''
Marshall took over the captaincy when veteran prop Nathan Cayless retired from international play in 2009. He led the side to the Four Nations title the following year with a stunning individual performance as the Kiwis defeated Australia in the final.
But New Zealand have won only one of their past six meetings with the Kangaroos, including four successive losses, though Kemp said the move to strip Marshall of the captaincy was not related to his form.
''Everyone knows there's a fine line between getting close and winning and Benji at his brilliant best can be the difference, so we want to make sure the focus is really on him playing at that brilliant best.''
The move was one of several changes the NZRL have made or are intending to make heading into the World Cup, which include the addition of sports science and psychology staff and a restructure of the high performance department.
''There's never a good time to be doing something like this (stripping Marshall of captaincy) but it's one of many changes we are going through,'' Kemp said.
''Obviously with the World Cup and a lot of changes within the high performance focus during the last 18 months, it's one of a number of areas we've looked to for improvement.
''If we think we can go into the World Cup like we did in 2008 and bring it back, that's not going to happen. The English are spending millions of pounds on winning this cup.''
Kearney said in a statement: ''Benji is an immensely proud New Zealander and his desire was to continue in the captaincy role.
''Although this decision has been a difficult one, it has been made in the best interests of the team, and Benji will remain an integral part of the Kiwis going forward.''
Kearney will announce the new captain at a press conference in Auckland tomorrow morning, with Warriors captain Simon Mannering an obvious candidate. Experienced backrower Jeremy Smith could also be in the mix.
- Fairfax NZ and Sydney Morning Herald