Benji Marshall to start at first-five for Blues
Benji Marshall certainly has his coach's full support after being named today to start at No 10 in the Blues' first hitout of the Super Rugby pre-season.
Marshall will play the first 40 minutes at first five-eighths against the Hurricanes in Masterton on Saturday, with coach Sir John Kirwan confirming today that not only had Marshall surpassed all expectations so far in his late-career code switch, but that he was now being viewed principally as a No 10 for the Blues.
The former Wests Tigers and Kiwis rugby league star was one of a handful off high-calibre off-season recruits to come to the Blues, but it's fair to say he's the one Kirwan has the most vested in.
Marshall hasn't played rugby since he was a 17-year-old finishing his schooling on the Gold Coast and after a long and successful career in league, there are many that doubt his ability to make a successful transition to rugby.
Kirwan, it's soon clear, is not one of them.
"There were a lot of unknowns when Benji hit town, and when I looked at him as a league player I thought 10 or 15," Kirwan said of his early thinking on the player. "He's really stepped into that 10 role. He has the personality of a 10, he takes control, likes to run the game-plan, and we've really concentrated on putting him there and he hasn't trained at 15 at all."
Asked if he'd been impressed with Marshall's ability to adapt to his new code, Kirwan exuded his trademark positivity.
"I think all our hopes have come true and now he's just got to play. We pursued a player who we thought would deliver and he's done than tenfold. We just need to put him out there.
"He's really serious about this, he's done everything asked, he's done a lot of homework on the game and has been constantly improving. The next step is get him out there and the more time we can get him before the season starts the better."
Kirwan confirmed Marshall will take on the goalkicking duties, as well as the tactical kicking responsibilities that go with playing first five.
Marshall said he was eager to finally take his learnings to a new level with some game time.
"It's been pretty good. The good part is the coaching staff have been good with not putting too much pressure on me to be the man of the match or that sort of stuff," Marshall said today.
"It's pretty much just about learning the reality of the game and what's going to happen, and getting a feel for playing. It's been a long time since I've played but you can do as much training with what you're going to expect but you don't rlealy know until you get to play. I'm looking forward to it."
As he had signposted, Kirwan has not selected any of his All Blacks for the pre-season opener, nor recuperating players like Piri Weepu and Chris Noakes, while experienced forwards Luke Braid and Tom Donnelly have also been allowed an extra week to ease into proceedings.
Kirwan said he didn't need to see what Donnelly could do and the veteran second-rower -- lured north after a stint at the Crusaders -- was better off taking another week of training before hitting the ground in the second clash against the Waratahs.
Kirwan is still working through contractual issues with the offshore-based lock he hopes to sign to replace the injured Culum Retallick, though he says a self-imposed deadline is imminent.
The Blues coach will also be taking a keen interest in how Jerome Kaino's Toyota club perform this weekend, with a chance the former All Black could be close to winding up his commitments in Japan.
"This week is a pretty big one and if he loses we'll probably have him around over the next few weeks. But we're not planning for that, so we'll see what happens."
BLUES: Albert Nikoa, Lolagi Visinia, George Moala, Jackson Willison, Tevita Li, Benji Marshall, Bryn Hall; Peter Saili, Brendon O'Connor, Kane Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liaki Moli, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, James Parsons, Sam Prattley. Reserves: Greg Pleasants-Tate, Tom McCartney, Angus Ta'avao, William Lloyd, Tom Murday, Jordan Manihera, Chris Vui, Jamison Gibson-Park, Sonatane Takulua, Baden Kerr, Matt McGahan, Marty Swart.