The venue was familiar. Family, friends and fellow Kiwis were supportive in the stands, yet Benji Marshall still played outside his comfort zone when his Super Rugby initiation continued against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney last night.
It didn't end in tears like Marshall's 200th for the Wests Tigers last August - his farewell on home soil and the penultimate game of his NRL career - but there was still a sense of unfinished business as he dissected his contribution to the Blues' 33-12 defeat at Allianz Stadium.
The outcome was similar to South Sydney's winning margin that night and although the scoreline was secondary, a pre-season hit out is a trial in every sense of the word for the former Kiwis captain.
Kurtley Beale might have been playing his first game for the Waratahs since 2011 but it was Marshall's return to Sydney that was always going to a focal point of a typically error-prone and occasionally frenetic encounter.
Ultimately Beale and his rival for the pivot role Bernard Foley were the most accomplished first five-eighths on display, while Chris Noakes also played the second half as if he wasn't playing his second game of rugby in 14 years.
Marshall emphasised that timeframe as he performed a critical analysis on his 40-minute exposure to a near full-strength Waratahs line-up.
The Blues, with the bulk of their 11 All Blacks back in Auckland, were expected to be on the back foot, a scenario that means Marshall is still finding his feet in a new working environment.
In contrast to his debut against the Hurricanes last weekend, Marshall was consigned to defensive duties for the bulk of the opening quarter as the Wallaby-laden pack ruled the set piece and breakdown.
Pressure was alleviated by teammates when he was not required to clear the lines and defensively he muscled up until 135kg lock Will Skelton was never going to be stopped at close range.
Offensively, Marshall couldn't expect to match the creativity offered by Foley and Beale although he did lay on a perfect short ball - the incision he perfected during his 11-season NRL career.
There was also a missed touch finder from a penalty and a pass knocked on by an unsuspecting teammate - the sort of "learnings" Marshall needs to absorb before a potential fully-fledged debut against the Highlanders in Dunedin on February 22.
"It's definitely another step in the right direction from a learning point of view.
"The expectation has been massive but you've just got to embrace the expectation and try and get better," he said, pointing out: "It's my second game in 14 years, I can still keep building."
Marshall nominated cleaning out at the collision as one of his major work-ons although he occasionally made a nuisance of himself in an area the Waratahs were dominating even before Wallabies openside Michael Hooper was brought on after halftime.
Alignment and defensive reads are also no longer from a league playbook and Marshall reckoned he "played a little bit too flat at times."
Blues coach John Kirwan admitted Marshall found life more challenging against the Waratahs and reiterated one of league's most elusive runners would take time to transfer his skills to rugby.
"He's just building into it. I thought he settled well last week, (last night) was a little bit harder because we started the first 20 minutes five penalties against us, we hadn't had the ball.
"It was a difficult night for him. He'll just keep learning .... no real issues."
Kirwan said Marshall was not the only newcomer that needed to adapt after an inexperienced pack were outmuscled.
"There were some young boys out there and they'll be coming away realising that you've got to win the contact in this game to win the footy," he said, after a pack missing Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua and Jerome Kaino struggled to impose themselves.
Meanwhile, despite the anxiety associated with a career change, Marshall was looking forward to a relaxing Saturday on common ground.
"My little brother's playing an under-20s trial for Wests Tigers, so I'll go and check that out."
NSW Waratahs 33 (Kurtley Beale, Will Skelton, Bernard Foley, Stephen Hoiles, Alofa Alofa tries; Foley 3 con; Beale con)
Blues: 12 (Jordan Manihera, Charles Piutau tries; Chris Noakes con)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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