Sir John Kirwan has made a bold play to lure rugby league superstar Benji Marshall to the Blues next year.
Blues coach Kirwan met Marshall's manager, Martin Tauber, at his home in Sydney this week.
Speculation about Marshall's future has reached fever-pitch. The 28-year-old Kiwi is in discussions with Sydney-based NRL club the Wests Tigers, where he is contracted until 2015, but a clause allows him to renegotiate after increases in the salary cap.
Tauber made it clear this week if Marshall turns his back on the Tigers it would be for rugby union. The gifted playmaker is fiercely loyal to the rugby league club he debuted for in 2003 and will not play for another league team.
Marshall is thought to be unhappy in rugby league after being stripped of the Kiwi captaincy and benched at the Tigers this year.
He has previously been linked to Japanese rugby and the NSW Waratahs but those rumours were put down to boosting his value around the contract table.
Kirwan's attempt to bring him to Auckland is genuine. It is the strongest suggestion yet one of rugby league's highest profile players could be about to switch codes - and move closer his Whakatane home.
"I heard he was looking to come to rugby union so I contacted his manager," Kirwan said from Durban.
"I'm just doing my job. It was just an initial talk to see how serious he was about moving to rugby union.
"He's certainly looking at his options. He's at the end of a contract. Like most professional sports people he is weighing up the future. I think he's pretty serious about a change of scenery. Whether that's rugby union or rugby league I'm not quite sure yet. I haven't personally spoken to Benji. It's just in the initial stages with his manager.
"If he is coming to rugby he'd be looking at being an All Black and playing sevens, all those great things rugby can bring you."
Marshall is thought to be on $500,000 per-year at the Tigers but earns over $1 million through endorsements. Kirwan believes Marshall would contemplate a pay cut to play in the 15-made code and chase Olympic Games gold with the sevens.
"Some of those high profile players are on pretty big money but I don't know if it would be about the money in the end," Kirwan said. "He might have to take a pay cut but he might do those things to play in New Zealand."
Kirwan is in a unique position. Having played 63 tests for the All Blacks and 35 games for the Warriors, he knows what it takes to switch codes. He believes Marshall possesses all the skills to become a quality first five-eighth in union.
"Of course it can be done," Kirwan said. "He's a fantastic player. I definitely think he would be a 10. His ability to attack and put guys in space around him is incredible. He's an x-factor player. He's a pivotal guy in the league circles and he's a good leader. I think he has all the attributes to play rugby union.
"There would be a transition period like there was for Sonny Bill [Williams] and like there has been with [Wallabies convert] Israel Folau. He'd probably need a year to settle but I'm pretty confident he's got the ability to do it.
"We'll now wait and see what Benji wants to do. He has to make that conscious decision. It would be a pretty big process to go through."
Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith backed Kirwan's views. The former All Blacks coach revealed two years ago he and Sir Graham Henry considered Marshall the pinnacle player in either code.
"I can remember Graham and I in 2010 and 2011, we used to watch him play as much as we could," Smith said. "We both thought he was probably the best rugby player in the world from either code. He was so special.
"I'd watch him run those second man plays. It looked like he was never going to get involved and then bang he'd go.
"It depends how he comes over. He hasn't played that well this year. He's married now ... maybe he's ready to settle down. But if he can get back to where he was ... he was very special."
Kirwan defended Marshall's maligned defensive capabilities and Smith felt he could be used similarly to how Reds coach Ewen McKenzie protects Quade Cooper at fullback.
"You might have to be a bit creative there," Smith said. "You wouldn't want to defend him in close anyway because he's too important out wide on the counter attack."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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