Goodbye to a hero

Benji

This evening the player that has arguably defined the new NRL era will play his final game, amazingly in today’s climate for the club that he began with just over 10 years ago. I will start by declaring that I am a Benji admirer – that might sounds like most rugby league fans, but the reality is I’m one of the minority.

I’ve never quite seen an athlete, let alone a rugby league player that can garner so much admiration yet also hate because of immense talent. Benji Marshall is, without doubt, the most naturally talented rugby league player I have, and possibly will ever, see. There are players who have performed better than Benji during his career, but none of them come close to his talent.

My opinion may be swayed by my choice of NRL team, but I implore you to watch the below and disagree with me.

 

 

Talent, however, will only get you so far.

In 2004 Wests Tigers won the final World Sevens competition, unsurprisingly with Benji at the forefront. In 7th minute of the semi-final against St George Illawarra, with the Tigers trailing 12-4, Marshall produced a masterstroke – the now customary hop, skip and step, before reaching his right arm out and flicking the ball one handed to captain Darren Senter, who scored under the posts. Fans and commentators marvelled at how he possibly produced that.

On days such as that, players have a lot of free time between matches, which in this case meant sitting in their designated area of the SCG indoor centre. For an hour prior to that semi-final, Marshall stood with teammate Bronson Harrison. He would bounce a football in front of him, catch it and flick it one handed to Harrison, who would do the same in return. A seemingly innocuous bit of play between two mates, was in fact the basis of training that many would later proclaim Marshall couldn’t ever have taken seriously. He was performing training that most people wouldn’t even attempt – but that was Benji’s mastery, the things even the best rugby league player’s would never attempt.

When you think about the memories that you’ll tell your grandchildren about, for me Benji exists at the forefront of all my sporting memories. He plays sport the way it is supposed to be played – with flair, with exuberance, and most importantly he plays for entertainment. Benji goes out every week to entertain and hope in doing so to win, something that professional sport has sucked the life out of in many modern athletes. In an era of high performance units, set in concrete structures and wrestling tactics, Benji skips, steps, speeds away and throws a no-look pass to a person 15m away from him.

 

 

I’ve certainly had a unique view of Benji throughout his career (I still claim that I had the best view of his 2005 grand final flick pass than any spectator other than Matt Bowen), but it is something that has only seen my admiration of him grow. For all intents and purposes, Benji was not supposed to have a 10 year rugby league career, his body was just not made for it. Multiple reconstructions to both shoulders, knee problems, ankle problems – he’s had them all. And beyond that he’s come back from all of them, in 2010 to win the Golden Boot. Off the field he’s faced intense scrutiny like any other high profile athlete, yet handled it like the champion that he is. I’ve never seen him, EVER, knock back a fan asking for an autograph or a photo, whether the situation be appropriate or not.

That is not to say the scrutiny doesn’t affect him – it does. Benji’s number one priority in his career is to entertain the people and it’s a job he’s done brilliantly for a decade. One news organisation in particular has consistently peddled the idea Benji is a spoiled brat who needs to be knocked down a peg, yet that only exacerbates the belief that they have no idea about the guy as a person. It goes some way to explaining the sometimes vitriolic opinions of him within the rugby league community, yet it also shows just how much influence the media has over the image of sportspeople.

 

 

I could quite easily go on all day about what Benji Marshall has done for rugby league in this country and his own, but I won’t. There is a generation of kids who play the game because of him, and spend their weekends in winter doing the Benji step and the flick pass, and that is his legacy. I have no shame in declaring that from a sporting sense, Benji is my hero.  In the wonderfully produced mini-doco above about his famous flick pass in 2005 you can hear Paul Vautin in commentary say “Was that a flick pass from Marshall? Oh stop it!”. I have to disagree Fatty – Benji, please don’t stop.

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