Kirwan interested in Benji; rules out Ma'a Nonu

13:09, Jul 16 2013
Sir John Kirwan
SIR JOHN KIRWAN: "I've spoken to him. He's a guy who is excited about the next stage of his professional career,"

Blues coach Sir John Kirwan has spoken with Benji Marshall but remains unsure whether the rugby league star will play rugby in Auckland next year.

Kirwan has, however, shut the door on Ma'a Nonu returning to the franchise.

Marshall officially requested an early release from the final two years of his contract with Wests Tigers yesterday.

The NRL club has indicated it will not stand in his way.

The 28-year-old's intention to switch codes and end his 11-year league career is a blow for the sport and casts doubt over his availability for the Kiwis when they attempt to retain their World Cup crown this year.

"There are 35 or so players in our wider World Cup plans and Benji has always been one of those," Kiwis manager Tony Iro said today.

"We'd love to see him available for the tournament, but we appreciate that he has some big decisions to make and he needs to do what is right for him and his family."

Kirwan began courting Marshall two weeks ago.

He had talks with Marshall's agent, Martin Tauber, in Sydney and has now spoken with the former Kiwis captain.

"I've spoken to him. He's a guy who is excited about the next stage of his professional career," Kirwan said today.

"It didn't get down to whether we were a part of his mix. I just wanted to talk to him about what he was thinking moving forward.

"What I got out of the conversation was he is genuinely thinking about changes in his life.

"I've spoken to his manager and we're part of what he is thinking moving forward. We're in the mix, I'm sure.

"Benji needs to make some decisions. He's obviously made one very big one and that's to move away from the Tigers.

"He'll be assessing what's on the table and I'm sure the Blues aren't the only people talking to him."

One option that Marshall is thought to be considering is a stint in Japanese rugby before aligning with either the New South Wales Waratahs or the Blues.

Marshall could earn up to $1 million in Japan for 12 games while adjusting to a low-intensity version of the 15-man game. That scenario, however, could see him miss the Blues' pre-season.

At this stage the New Zealand Rugby Union is not part of negotiations, but the prospect of playing sevens under Sir Gordon Tietjens at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games is a strong lure.

"That's not something I've considered at the moment," Kirwan said of a Japanese stint for Marshall.

"I've spoken to Martin and Benji and there are three or four other people we want to talk to over the next 10 days. How that commercial package is put together, if it gets to that, is something we'll assess at the time."

The Blues are now partly privately owned by businessman Murray Bolton and there is also the prospect of a significant third party deal to minimise Marshall's potential loss of earnings.

"I don't know if it's a sticking point, but he's going to have to take a pay cut to come to rugby, so that's a big sacrifice," Kirwan said. "He's a superstar of rugby league in a bigger population and money pull. If New Zealand was going to be one of his options, I'm sure he would have to look at it financially as well."

On the face of it, Marshall is a high-risk purchase. Nobody knows how long it will take him to adapt to rugby union.

His style of drifting across field and putting players into space may not translate into the first five-eighth role. Union does not offer the chance to start afresh once tackled.

Defence is another question mark.

This is a tricky juggling act for Kirwan as the Blues are also in talks with Hurricanes playmaker Beauden Barrett.

Kirwan left the door ajar for Nonu last week, but today he ruled out linking with the All Blacks second-five again.

"It's no secret Beauden Barrett is on the market, but I'm sure I'm not the only person talking to him," Kirwan said.

"I don't think Ma'a wants to come back to the Blues. Hurricanes would be where he would want to be.

"I don't think there's a spot here in those positions. We're pretty strong.

"We've got a young backline that's going to be very special in Francis Saili, Charles Piutau and Frank Halai."


Ma'a Nonu
STAYING PUT: Ma'a Nonu now looks like he may stay put at the Highlanders.
Benji Marshall
LEAGUE OUT: Former star Benny Elias believes if Benji wants out, he needs to go now.

Fairfax Media