TIGERS, RUGBY AND BENNETT THE BELIEVER
Ahead of what might be his final NRL game, Benji Marshall spoke to Travis Meyn and Peter Badel about some of the twists and turns of his amazing 346-game NRL career
BENJI Marshall has opened up about his one career regret as the Rabbitohs veteran prepares to farewell the NRL in Sunday night’s Suncorp Stadium grand final.
Marshall will make what is expected to be his final appearance in the NRL when South Sydney tackles Penrith in the historic Queensland premiership decider.
It will be Marshall’s 346th NRL game and comes 16 years after he played a starring role in the Wests Tigers’ 2005 grand final triumph.
Then a 20-year-old rising star, Marshall’s famous flick pass to sink North Queensland has been etched into grand final folklore and kickstarted one of the great NRL careers.
Now 36, Marshall will come off the bench for the Rabbitohs after resurrecting his career multiple times with the help of coach Wayne Bennett when he was on the cusp of retirement.
“Wayne’s saved my career twice, I should be retired by now,” Marshall said. “I’ve been thinking this week about how exciting it is to be back in this position and how hard it is to get into a grand final.
“It’s Souths’ second grand final in 50 years. That’s crazy when you think about the history of the club.
“I’m just grateful to be here, to have the opportunity from Wayne and the club, and for the players believing in me. I just have a lot of gratitude.”
Marshall shot to stardom in 2005 when he helped the Tigers to their first, and what remains their only, premiership as a joint-venture club.
He quickly became one of the NRL’s biggest drawcards. His dazzling feet and ball skills made him a marvel to watch and a New Zealand Test gun.
But his decade-long alliance with the Tigers ended controversially in 2013 when Marshall found himself on the outer at the club following a slow start to the season.
Having grown up playing the 15man code, Marshall signed with Super Rugby’s Auckland Blues for 2014 but struggled to find his feet and after six games returned to the NRL with St George Illawarra.
While he doesn’t regret switching codes, Marshall said the nature of his Tigers exit remained the one sore point of his career.
“Maybe when I went to rugby, the way I left was a little messy,” he said when asked if he had any regrets.
“It was the best thing I did for my mental game. I don’t really want to go too deep into it because it’s not really something I like talking about.
“I didn’t really want to leave the Tigers but they had ‘Brooksy’ (Luke Brooks) and (Mitchell) Moses coming through and made it clear I wasn’t going to be involved.
“That’s why I moved on. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I needed that break to reassess what I wanted to do and ended up back at the Dragons to start again in the NRL.”
After three seasons at the Dragons with mixed success, Marshall’s career was once again at a crossroads. He had nowhere to go for the 2017 season and faced retirement, before a call to then Broncos coach Bennett gave him another chance.
“Being the New Zealand captain, I played five years in a row of All Stars with Wayne,” Marshall said. “We just had this bond and connection. He was always upfront and honest, loved the way I played and I always found with him that I played good footy.
“I think he likes me. I’m not your average guy, I crack a lot of jokes, and when he’s being serious I reckon I’m pretty good at picking the time to lighten the mood a bit. He likes that.
“I just be myself and that’s what Wayne loves about me.”
After one season at the Broncos, Marshall made a fairytale return to the Tigers in 2018, only to once again be pushed out the door last year.
After deals with the Cowboys and Bulldogs fell through, it looked like it was over for good before another call to Bennett, who is now coaching the Rabbitohs, gave Marshall one last chance at winning another NRL title.
“He rang me up and said ‘my deal’s fallen through, I’d love to come to South Sydney’,” Bennett said.
“I went and saw (fellow playmakers) Adam (Reynolds) and Cody (Walker) because I didn’t want them to think that I was undermining them, and they wanted him to come.
“So I rang him back and I said ‘why do you want to come to South Sydney?’ And he said, ‘I think you can win the premiership, I think you can be in the grand final. And I want to go out on a good note’.
“Like a lot of us, Benji doesn’t want fanfare or fuss about it, but you can’t retire in a better moment in your football career than a grand final. It doesn’t get better than that.”
Now, 18 years after his NRL debut in 2003, Marshall’s shot at a fairytale farewell has arrived.
“I’m just a completely different player from then,” he said. “More mature, and know more about the game.
“Back then I was an up-and-coming rising star, now I’m just the old dude who comes off the bench and fills in wherever.
“My wife said ‘remember 10 months ago when you were at the rubbish dump and no one wanted you but Wayne?’ I was just going to retire. It’s incredible.”