Written by Stuart McLennan
When an 18 year old schoolboy from New Zealand via Keebra Park graced the field at Campbelltown for a 50 minute stint at fullback and halfback back in 2003, the collective spirits of the Wests Tigers fans rose dramatically.
We knew we had something special with a precocious kid who wasn’t shy to put his rare talent and ability on display against the hard heads of the NRL in the toughest rugby league competition in the world.
A Sydney Morning Herald headline at the time read ‘Tigers schoolboy star looks a class act on debut’ and went on to say “ with his family in attendance after flying across from Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty to watch the game, Marshall – a former under-16 New Zealand rugby union representative – made several good breaks and figured prominently in two of the Tigers’ nine tries.
Former Penrith hard nut Royce Simmons attempted to reduce the hype as much for the good of his young player as anything else. With Benji the attention was always at his side in his impressive career.
— South Sydney Rabbitohs 🐰 (@SSFCRABBITOHS) October 6, 2021
“The first thing you can do if you want to be a footballer, mate, is get rid of that earring,” Tigers assistant coach Simmons said, before football manager Steve Lavers hustled him inside the dressing-room.
“After a big win, and with all the attention he’s getting, we just don’t want him to get too far ahead of himself,” Simmons later explained. “It’s not like this every week.”
It is well documented Benji went on to much greater things in our sport after the debut against Newcastle. However it was not always plain sailing.
After five shoulder reconstructions he seriously considered retirement. It seemed that his naturally slight frame was not suited to top level rugby league.
A favourite moment was watching him tear Cronulla’s defence to shreds at Shark Park in 2005, the year the Wests Tigers won their first and only premiership. He was virtually untouchable on that day.
Of course there was that ‘day’ highlighted by Benji’s amazing run from inside his 20 metre line and the flick pass to Pat Richards for a try that proved to be significant to the victory. It’s vision etched in our black, orange and white minds forever.
There were the dark times in 2013 when Benji left the club after an unhappy period on the field for stints with Auckland Rugby Union, St George Illawarra and Brisbane.
There was euphoria amongst fans when he returned to Concord alongside fellow club legend Robbie Farah in 2018.
More sadness at the end of 2020 when the club couldn’t find a place in the roster for him leading to him appearing in a grand final for Souths this year.
One of the greatest #NRL careers comes to an end.
Benji Marshall, a rugby league legend 👏https://t.co/t3s1nXHxKf
— NRL (@NRL) October 6, 2021
A rugby union and touch football star who came to rugby league by chance, he was unhindered by the club junior development systems that often temper the style of risk taking players.
No player has emulated the sidestep, lightning feet, flick passes and anticipation he possessed early in his career. There were times misfired passes would end up in the wrong hands or go sailing over sidelines but that’s what you get with a player with exceptional talent and vision willing to back himself.
Kids were drawn to the sport and the Wests Tigers by his flamboyant play and the ease with which he could break a defensive line. It was colourful rugby league at its best.
Later in his career, when the legs couldn’t carry him as quickly, he reinvented himself as a cool headed game manager and utility off the bench.
Wests Tigers can thank Benji for the fans and sponsors he attracted. As fans we say thank you for all you did for our club and lifting our spirits in what has been a rocky road with the joint venture.
All rugby league fans were better for seeing Marshall play 346 club games and 31 international matches for New Zealand.
While he will take up a full time role with Fox Sports I would love to see Benji and the Wests Tigers put any recent differences aside so the club life member can work with Michael Maguire, Robbie Farah and Benji’s first NRL coach Tim Sheens to mentor the current group of young Tigers.
You gave us hope Benji and our battered and bruised fan base desperately needs to find that feeling again.