Could Shaun Johnson's injury see Benji Marshall back in black?
With Shaun Johnson now in serious doubt for the World Cup, is it time for Kiwis selectors to consider an unlikely recall for Benji Marshall?
No league fan wants to see it but if Johnson is hit with the worst-case scenario they could certainly do a lot worse than select the former New Zealand captain, who has been in international exile for the last five years after falling out of favour with previous coach Stephen Kearney.
On the brink of retirement at the end of last season, the 32-year-old five-eighth has gone a long way to vindicating Broncos coach Wayne Bennett's decision to throw him a lifeline when no other club would touch him.
After a frustrating start to life in Brisbane, Marshall has shown the value of having an experienced playmaker on hand to mentor young players and cover injury.
He may no longer be the NRL's great entertainer, lighting up crowds with his electric pace and exaggerated sidestep, but the sleight of hand remains, as shown during last month's match-winning display in Canberra.
Marshall has adapted his style in recent seasons to play a more conventional pivot's role and it is paying dividends at the Broncos, where his leadership has been crucial in the absence of injured duo Darius Boyd and Anthony Milford.
They were fifth heading into Saturday's clash against the Knights and, with the taxing Origin period now out of the way, are well placed to push for a home semifinal.
Bennett has indicated that Marshall could be in line for a new contract and speaking before Johnson hurt his knee on Friday, the extent of which is still yet to be confirmed, Brisbane teammate and new Kiwis captain Adam Blair said Marshall deserves to be in the mix for the World Cup.
"I really enjoy playing with Benji in general," Blair said earlier this week. "I've had opportunities through the Kiwis and at the (Wests) Tigers, and it's great to see someone like him admit that he went away from what he does well but has come up here with a new lease of life and really just enjoy the moments he has left.
"It's great to see because when he's at his best he's unstoppable."
Even if Johnson's diagnosis is not as bad as initially feared and he manages to recover in time for the World Cup in late October, Marshall could still play an important role.
There is no question that Johnson and Kieran Foran are the first-choice playmakers and Kiwis coach David Kidwell does have a couple options in the halves.
Although, Thomas Leuluai has somewhat slipped off the radar since returning to England and, while showing plenty of promise, 2016 Four Nations squad member Te Maire Martin is still in the infancy of his career.
Marshall is a big-game player and provided he maintains his from for the rest of the year, who better to step up in a World Cup semifinal or final if Johnson or Foran are unavailable.
"We're reaping all the rewards at the Broncos through our younger players by having his knowledge and leadership around," Blair said.
"Maybe if he's playing really well the selectors may look down that path because a World Cup is pretty important and he's been there and done it before and at that stage was one of the best players going around.
"It would be great to have someone of his experience around for the group."
It has been over a month since Blair replaced sacked Kiwis skipper Jesse Bromwich and, while his main focus is on the Broncos, the World Cup is never far from his mind.
Along with Kidwell, he has a huge job rebuilding the Kiwis' image both on and off the field.
The national side's public reputation took a huge hit after Bromwich and fellow forward Kevin Proctor 's involvement in a drugs scandal outside a nightclub following the Anzac test in Canberra two months ago.
The 30-12 defeat was also the fifth consecutive loss to Australia and Blair, a veteran of 39 tests for New Zealand, admits the players have not done a good enough job of pushing the standards in place.
But he is determined for that change on his watch.
"I don't think the standards have dropped but I think we haven't driven it hard enough as a group," Blair said.
"We need to be really hard in what our beliefs are, what we want to achieve and what we're there for.
"When you do drive these things no one wants to let each other down so we just need to keep pushing those standards, be diligent and strong as a group."
- Sunday News