Time to give Benji Marshall crack at the back

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 12/03/2014
Benji Marshall
MARK KOLBE/ Getty
BENCH WARMER: Benji Marshall's only seen a small amount of game time for the Blues and is yet to start.

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The time has come to start Benji Marshall.

The Blues' highest paid player - earning close to $500,000 a year before endorsements - isn't going to learn the game at training or in the stands. 

He needs a chance.

Early conservatism was understandable. Now a leap of faith is needed. 

In three possible Super Rugby games Marshall's played just 15 minutes. He hasn't been used in the last two weeks. That's not enough time to make a contribution or absorb any meaningful lessons. 

Marshall has been frequently seen with his head buried in the Blues' playbook. There's only so much swotting a bloke can do. Nothing replicates the on-field classroom.

After Marshall had three stints at first five-eighth during pre-season, John Kirwan realised fullback is a much easier position for his star recruit to adopt the game's nuances, without the added pressure of running the team. 

Eventually, Marshall wants to be a presence at 10. Right now, there's no way he's ready for such responsibility. 

Sure it's a risk, but hand Marshall the No. 15 jersey against the Lions at Ellis Park this weekend, and shift All Blacks utility Charles Piutau to centre. 

Let's find out where Marshall is at and, specifically, what he has to work on. Give him time to experience reading the game; time to chime in from the back and, yes, even be exposed. It's the only way he'll develop. 

Any assessment of his abilities should be reserved until later in the season. Hold fire on the criticism.

Without All Blacks Francis Saili and Ma'a Nonu - expected to return from off-season ankle surgery via the bench the following week against the Cheetahs at Eden Park - the Blues' midfield has been problematic. This further supports Piutau's move to centre. 

In the underwhelming loss to the Bulls they lacked cohesion and penetration. Unable to break down the locals' defence, they resorted to dinky chip kicks and were consistently exposed on defence. 

George Moala is a wing, not centre. Kirwan saw Moala play well there during pre-season, but he looked out of place in the role against the Bulls. Jackson Willison is also more accustomed to second-five. After an eye-catching cameo from the bench, Pita Ahki deserves strong consideration but by starting Piutau in the 13 jersey you create more firepower in the midfield. 

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Piutau loves the collisions. Imagine him alongside Nonu next week. That's a potentially lethal combination.  

While Piutau has minimal experience in the role, gaining a broader perspective will only benefit his continued progression and add to his versatility.

Marshall's slow development was predictable. Union is a completely different game to league, with two more players and 20 metres less space. That's before you throw in the breakdown complexities and diverse defensive patterns.

Even the best league back-line converts - think Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau - took at least 12 months to find their feet. Crucially, though, they were given ample opportunities to learn from their mistakes. 

Protecting Marshall from failure is fine, to a point. But the Blues brought the former Kiwis captain to Auckland for a reason. And, despite growing suggestions, it wasn't solely for marketing purposes. Marshall is an immensely proud man with genuine ambitious in the 15-man code. 

It's time he was given a chance to test and transfer those unique skills which captivated league fans for over a decade. Those same skills that first convinced Kirwan he could be a success. 

Who knows, he could be the attacking spark the Blues need.

- Stuff

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