Blues likely to bench Marshall for Super opener

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 19/02/2014

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The Blues' patience with Benji Marshall appears to have run out after a less than impressive pre-season, with Chris Noakes set to start at No 10 against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.

The Blues won't name their lineup till tomorrow but at training yesterday in blazing hot conditions in Auckland Noakes appeared to have the nod ahead of the former Kiwis and Wests Tigers league playmaker.

Marshall has made a celebrated conversion to rugby after more than a decade in the NRL and is not hiding his ambition to push for a spot in the All Blacks.

The 28-year-old started all three of the Blues' pre-season games but failed to impress as he struggled to come to terms with the requirements of the playmaking position in his new code.

Kirwan all but admitted yesterday that Marshall would be given more time to develop his craft before being asked to start at first five, though there remains an outside chance he could be called up to play fullback on Saturday.

"The most important thing is if we don't think Benji is quite ready then we won't expose him," Kirwan said. "I've always said this is a long-term project, so we're running him a bit more in these first few days at fullback, then we'll name our team on Thursday.

"If we don't think he's quite ready he won't be out there."

Last season's rookie All Black sensation Charles Piutau is carrying a niggly injury following the final pre-season hitout against the Chiefs, with a knock to his knee requiring a bit more time than initially thought.

"It looks like he's busted a blood vessel and there's a little more swelling than usual. But it's nothing major, and just needs a couple of extra days of ice."

Kirwan said it was a "possibility" Marshall could play fullback if Piutau was ruled out.

But the Blues coach indicated he was content to give Noakes - coming off neck surgery -- a second straight opportunity to start the season at No 10.

"He had a really good start to the season, like the rest of us [last year]. We just need to find a good mix between attack and making sure we're playing field position, so the balance for the Blues team in general is something that we'll be looking for. We think Chris can really bring that for us."

Kirwan confirmed All Blacks Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Ma'a Nonu would not be considered for Saturday, with Woodcock and Mealamu due back next week and Nonu around their third match in South Africa.

But he did not anticipate the lack of big names - star signing Jerome Kaino has still to arrive from Japan - preventing his team making the start he sought.

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"We made the start last year with no one. It's about enthusiasm, and the guys that are there taking their opportunities. What we're trying to create this year is internal competition so these guys have an opportunity to really step up and put pressure on the guys who aren't playing."

Kirwan also shrugged off any suggestion Jamie Joseph's Highlanders will be easybeats in 2014, despite their lack of big names.

"I'd be happy if I was them. They've gone under the radar, everyone has written them off, and they've just gone about their work quietly. They're playing at home. I know Jamie, and I know they'll be really proud, and the Gordon Hunter trophy, that's extra motivation.

"They've got all the cards stacked on their side."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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