Benji ready to Marshall the Blues from No 10
With the Blues already rethinking the likely role for their star cross-code signing, Marc Hinton sat down with Benji Marshall for a frank assessment on the rugby re-education of this man on a mission
As Benji Marshall saunters out from the Blues team room at their training headquarters, his easygoing disposition betrays an inner turmoil that doesn't take long to bubble to the surface. You might be able to take the boy out of the competition he became synonymous with, but the competitor clearly still burns within.
Marshall, of course, is going through a process he hasn't faced in over a decade after forging a storied 200-game career with the Wests Tigers in Australia's NRL. Now he's become the latest high-profile player to jump from league to union, he's learning a sport all over again.
It's fair to say that's not playing out without a degree of angst ahead of Saturday's pre-season opener in Masterton.
The 28-year-old former Kiwis captain has been with the Blues since late last year for pre-season conditioning. But it's only been over the past three weeks that he's had a rugby ball in his hands, and what seems like a thousand different foreign thoughts running through his head.
Suddenly what was up is now down. What was black is now white. What Marshall knew, he's now finding it's best to forget.
That's the reality Marshall is confronted with as the Blues seek to fast-track his rugby re-education - he last played the XV-man code as a 17-year-old on the Gold Coast. What's more, fundamental aspects of the way this guy goes about his sport have had to be put on the back-burner.
"The problem was at the start I wanted to know everything straight away," says Marshall in an exclusive chat with Sunday News. "I'm one of those people if I'm not good at something I'll go hard until I get good at it. But I had to break it down and take a step back.
"That was pretty hard for me. But I feel like how far I've come in just a couple of weeks is good. I've still got long way to go, man. We haven't even touched on rucks yet. I'm just learning the attack structures. Now we're looking at the defensive side of things."
Marshall, who has a reputation for flamboyance from the other code, may well be underselling himself here. It's hard to think that he hasn't been impressing the tracksuits off his coaches at the Blues which is confirmed when Kirwan declares he's now viewing Marshall as a potential No 10 for season kickoff.
That's a dramatic about-face. The theory, as espoused by Kirwan, had been that it would be too big an ask to expect Marshall to pick up the nuances of playing No 10 in just a few short weeks. But that appears to have gone out the window.
"He's been fantastic," says Kirwan. "The last two weeks have been really intensive but he's blended in fine, has been playing a lot at 10, hasn't done much at 15, and so far, so good. He's doing everything he can... and we just need to get him out there to have a bit of a crack at it."
Kirwan says he's likely to play Marshall at first five-eighths. But he urges: "What we don't need to do is put pressure on Benji to be a great rugby player in week one. I think he will be a great rugby player, but it will take him a little while to get used to the finer parts of our game. This is a long-term project, and we think he's going be a good 10, so we'll just go with that."
Kirwan talks about the adjustments Marshall faces as going from a one-dimensional game to a three-dimensional one. Suddenly things are coming at him from all directions, and there's serious decisions to be made.
Marshall concurs. In league, he says, you're either a right or left side player. In rugby there is no such luxury. In league the play comes from in front of you. In rugby, the panorama is much more 360-degree. His instinct in his last code was to step inside to find space. He does that now and he hits peak-hour traffic. "The first week I was so frustrated, because I was shit at it and I wanted to be good at it," he surmises, rather succinctly.
What about the doubters and detractors? Motivational fodder, per chance?
"I don't really care," he says. "That doesn't fuel me, man. What fuels me is wanting to perform and wanting to be the best. I don't have to prove anything to anyone other than to myself and my team-mates.
"Long term the ultimate goal is to make the All Blacks. To do that you have to be the best. I'm still a long way off that. I'll be happy to just cement a spot somewhere in the team for the season. I want to be there for round one but if I'm not ready, I'm not ready, and I'm sure with the honesty in the club they'll tell me if I'm not ready."
Marshall bristles a little when you mention people might be surprised to hear he has an ambition to be an All Black.
"I don't really care," he says. "That's what it's about for me. I want to be the best and I don't like losing. I'm not expecting it, but if that happens then it's dream achieved from when I was a kid. If not, hopefully we win the competition here."
Maybe he achieves both. This is Benji Marshall, after all.