'He finished about 15 or 20 minutes before anyone else': When Benji Marshall stunned the Blues
Benji Marshall’s retirement after the 2021 NRL Grand Final finished a storied career as one rugby league’s greatest players, spanning three different decades from 2003 to 2021.
The retired South Sydney Rabbitohs playmaker spent one of those years in rugby union, signing with New Zealand Rugby and the Blues in 2014 after leaving the Wests Tigers, where he had played his entire career to that point.
Marshall’s goal of making the All Blacks and playing at the 2015 World Cup never came to fruition as he only played six games for the Blues before calling it quits to return to the NRL, but his brief stint in union caught the attention of many at the time.
Former Blues players James Parsons and Bryn Hall were both teammates of Marshall’s that season, and the pair reflected on his spell at the franchise in the wake of his retirement announcement on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“I’ll never forget, we usually have our first days of pre-season you always have your yoyo test and your bronco test,” Hall, now with the Crusaders, re-called.
“I’ve never seen so many cameras for a yoyo test in my life. It highlighted the magnitude of what Benji Marshall was at that time. We were fortunate enough that he signed with the Blues at that time.”
Hall, who was starting his own career in just his second season of Super Rugby, said the 36-year-old was a great squad member who put his ego aside to try and make his rugby union transition a success.
“He was really open, really open and honest around his journey. He probably didn’t succeed in the way he wanted to, but was open knowing that, ‘I’ve transitioned from rugby league to rugby and I am struggling a little bit’,” Hall said.
“He was always wanting to know and had that growth mindset. That was Benji to a tee. He knew his weaknesses and he would be very open to the coaches and playing group.
“At the same time, he was a great guy. He was also very approachable and was great for our young guys. I was young at that time, we all knew what a big star he was in rugby league, he was never too big for us.
“He never had an ego, he put that aside. When you can talk to a guy like that, with that kind of stature, it talks to what a great person he was.”
Parsons, a Blues centurion who captained the franchise towards the end of his career, also had great admiration for his former teammate, re-calling a training session where Marshall blitzed the entire team in a circuit session.
“He touched me so deeply, I managed to bring rugby league and rugby together with a flick pass against Canterbury behind my back to Matt Duffie,” Parsons joked in reference to his Marshall-esque try assist while playing for North Harbour against Canterbury in 2018.
“One of my big motivations was to pay tribute to him while I was still playing, managed to do that which was great.
“In all seriousness, one thing that surprised me the most, not his running fitness. We went to Ludus Magnus once, it’s like a bodyweight circuit gym, ruthless sort of crawling, and all sorts of gut-busters.
“I remember he finished about 15 or 20 minutes before anyone else. His up-off-the-ground fitness, you know in the NRL they’ve always got to backtrack 10-metres, he was just incredible.
“All the bodyweight stuff and crawling, he just absolutely demo’d it. I said to him afterwards, ‘How’d you get so fit at that?’ and he’s like ‘Mate, that’s all we do in the NRL’.
“They do that wrestle [once they’ve been tackled], they are always going back the 10 [metres], so they are so used to that physical, up off the ground, burpee-style fitness, which surprised me.”
Despite his ultimately failed transition to union, Marshall still managed to produce glimpses of what he was capable of in the XV-man game.
In his one Super Rugby start against the Lions in Johannesburg, the fullback scored his only career try – assisted by Hall – and racked up 130 run metres on 10 carries, produced two line breaks, two try assists.
He produced a similarly eye-catching display in his union debut when he came off the bench against the Highlanders in the Blues’ season-opener as he wowed the Dunedin crowd with a typically spectacular flick pass that eventually led to a Patrick Tuipulotu try.
“Although he left early, if you look at some of his highlights for the Blues, he was pretty exceptional,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“Especially on that South African tour, he set-up some beautiful tries, scored one himself against the Lions. He had his moments even when he came off the bench against the Highlanders.
“He certainly had a skillset, I guess it just wasn’t the right fit for him and he had an opportunity to go back to the NRL and he played a Grand Final this year, so it shows he still had plenty to offer.”
Marshall ended his playing career with 346 NRL appearances for the Wests Tigers, St George-Illawarra Dragons, Brisbane Broncos and South Sydney Rabbitohs, and six Super Rugby outings for the Blues.
He played a key role in guiding the Tigers to their 2005 NRL Premiership, their only title to date, and was a runner-up with the Rabbitohs earlier this month.
Internationally, he played 31 tests for the Kiwis in a test career spanning 15 years, during which time he captained them on numerous occasions as he guided them to the 2008 World Cup and 2010 Four Nations titles.
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
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