No pressure on Benji Marshall, but a lot to learn
There's either no pressure on Benji Marshall this week, or a ton of it, depending on who you listen to around the Blues.
Marshall will play his first rugby match in over a decade on Saturday in Masterton when the Blues and Hurricanes kick off their pre-season schedules.
There will be no All Blacks in action from either side as both crank up their rugby machines for the first time in 2014. But interest will be sky-high, mainly thanks to the presence of Marshall, the latest league star to take the plunge in the XV-man code.
Marshall, now 28, was a brilliantly instinctive league player for more than a decade with the Wests Tigers and Kiwis, a creative genius as a free-running stand-off with a licence to thrill.
But he hasn't played rugby since he was 17, and he's the first to admit that he's going through a massive learning process adapting to his new code's positional, defensive and system requirements.
But Blues coach Sir John Kirwan says there will be no pressure on his cross-code recruit, who will split time at No 10 in Masterton with Counties playmaker Baden Kerr.
"He needs to get out there and get a feel for it," said Kirwan. "He's been going fantastic, but I just don't want to put too much pressure on him. He's been great in the environment, he's learning a new trade which is not easy but he's taking it with great positivity and working really hard."
Kirwan accepts that Marshall will be put under the media microscope whenever he plays, which "goes with the territory" for a player of his new playmaker's profile.
But the Blues coach says the team can play its part in limiting any pressure he's feeling from within.
"As far as we're concerned there's no pressure on him. We just want him to play, to implement the game-plans and have an understanding, like everyone else, of what he is doing," said Kirwan.
"As far as judging him on day one, that won't be happening internally.
"There's no pressure whatsoever. During the week is for practice; Saturday is just play, and then we'll look at it again next week."
But veteran halfback Piri Weepu, who's been mentoring Marshall through his transition, warns the new Blue will take time to master his new craft.
"The best thing about him is all the questions he asks because he wants to get a good understanding of what his role is at 10 and what his role is at fullback. There are a lot of things he has to learn in a short period, and he's trying to play catchup in the six weeks leading into the competition.
"He's doing well. He's not used to running direct, and is more a lateral type runner, but he gets the concept of what we're trying to achieve."
But Weepu cautions against expecting too much, too soon.
"He's not quite ready yet to run a team," warns the World Cup-winning All Black. "That's his biggest worry, and he's just working hard to get in a position so he can."
The problem, says Weepu, is that a rugby first-five is the ultimate multi-tasker, and right now that's a stretch for Marshall.
"You've got to make calls on what our themes are going to be, and then make strike call at the same time. In rugby you've got a lot of things on the go, and I guess as a flyhalf in league you're basically just dropping guys off or trying to throw short balls or go out the back door for a second-man play.
"There are a lot of things you've got to add to your repertoire, and this week has been a massive learning curve for him. I just hope we'll see him in there and cleaning some rucks out."
Yes, the list goes on.