TIME TO END BENJI’S KIWIS EXILE

Benji Marshall has not represented New Zealand since 2012 but after a string of controversial snubbings and a sublime start to the year with Wests Tigers, it’s time to welcome the Kiwis legend back into the fold for the Denver Test.

THE RISE AND FALL

Benji Marshall’s achievements in the international arena stack up alongside any of his countrymen. Debuting for the Kiwis in 2005 as a hot-stepping 20-year-old, the Whakatane-born five-eighth played 25 Tests – including 17 as captain – across eight seasons.

The Wests Tigers superstar was integral to New Zealand’s euphoric 2008 World Cup triumph, while he won the Golden Boot in 2010 after leading the Kiwis to Four Nations success with one of the great Test performances in the final.

An automatic pick as skipper over the next two years, injury ruled him out of the 2013 Anzac Test and he was a pariah by season’s end, accepting a deal to join Super Rugby’s Blues after a dismal season for his beloved-but-struggling Tigers.

THE EXILE

Marshall returned to the NRL in May 2014 with St George Illawarra and his form at halfback was sound, but the incumbent Kieran Foran-Shaun Johnson combination meant there was no room for him in the Kiwis’ setup.

Foran and Johnson steered New Zealand to another Four Nations title that year and a historic Anzac Test win in 2015.

But the blue-chip halves were both ruled out of the Kiwis’ tour of England, while a resurgent Marshall finished equal-second in the Dally M Medal count after a stellar campaign in the Dragons’ No.7 jersey.

An international recall for Marshall seemed the logical – and the only feasible – alternative. But Stephen Kearney and the selectors opted for uncapped NRL novices Tuimoala Lolohea and Kodi Nikorima as the Kiwis’ only recognised halves.

Bewildering, given Marshall had been Kearney’s high-achieving on-field general for five years at Test level.

An NZRL staffer at the time told me just before the squad’s departure to the UK that overlooking Marshall was effectively due to the fact he no longer fitted with the culture (yes, that multifaceted, problematic term) Kearney had moulded. That wherever Marshall went, a media circus followed – a disruption the Kiwis didn’t want, regardless of how badly they needed the veteran’s experience and ability on tour.

The gamble backfired, with outside-back Peta Hiku donning the No.6 in all three Tests against England, Nikorima and Lolohea inadequately filling the halfback role, and the Kiwis losing the series 2-1.

Though admittedly less impressive at first-grade level in 2016, Marshall would have been an ideal inclusion for David Kidwell’s Kiwis’ 2016 Four Nations tour with Foran again unavailable. But they rolled the dice on Penrith rookie Te Maire Martin – a veteran of just six NRL games at that stage.

After Thomas Leuluai broke down with injury, we were left with the absurd situation of starting Tohu Harris at five-eighth in the final against Australia, with Kidwell afraid to put the precocious Martin in the hot-seat. New Zealand was pumped 34-8 and Harris struggled on both sides of the ball.

A shock signing by Brisbane for 2017, Marshall played a surprisingly prominent role in the Broncos’ campaign – including featuring in all three finals games. Meanwhile, the troubled Foran again ruled himself out of the Kiwis’ World Cup squad, which was in crisis after a series of defections to Tonga and other late injury withdrawals.

But Kidwell and co had already made a rod for their own back by repeatedly declaring during the season that Marshall was not on their radar whatsoever.

Nikorima, Martin and Leuluai were chosen as alternatives to partner Johnson and the Kiwis went on to endure the most humiliating campaign in their history.

Perhaps Marshall wouldn’t have performed any better than that trio at five-eighth, but he almost certainly would have had helped steer the team away from the paranoid, introverted, tactically barren cliff Kidwell led the Kiwis off.

Strike three for the selectors.

THE FORMLINE

Benji’s return to Tigertown has been one of the feelgood stories of 2018. No guarantee to find a berth even in the Tigers’ 17, Marshall cemented the five-eighth spot after an injury to Josh Reynolds and hasn’t looked back.

The 33-year-old is playing with the enthusiasm of a teenager and the guile of the veteran that he is. Marshall has attracted seven Dally M votes in the opening six rounds and formed a wonderful combination with a rejuvenated Luke Brooks.

In the past fortnight he’s kicked a match-winning field goal against Melbourne at Mount Smart Stadium and scored two tries in a rout of Manly at Brookvale.

His positivity and excitement is as much of a breath of fresh air as his electric sidesteps and audacious flick passes were back in 2005 – and there’s no Kiwi half playing better football.

THE PASSION

Despite his shoddy treatment over a number of seasons, Marshall has never shied away from proclaiming his desire to pull on the black-and-white jumper again.

Posed the perennial Kiwis question after the Round 5 win over the Storm, Marshall said: “To be honest I’d never make myself not available for New Zealand. I’ve lost hope over the last couple of years, but I’m just enjoying being home at the Tigers, enjoying having wins and playing footy. When I’m doing that I feel like I get the best out of myself. I’ll keep doing that, and if (a Kiwis recall) happens, it happens, and if it don’t – well, nothing different to the last few years.”

Few players have represented New Zealand with more pride, and with several players shunning the Kiwis to play for the nation of their parents’ heritage and more still regularly sitting out Tests and tours to recover from injury niggles, Marshall is exactly what the rebuilding side needs right now.

Marshall publicly slammed Jason Taumalolo for the timing of his defection to Tonga in the wake of the squad announcement debacle, while after the tournament he expressed his belief that he could have helped the embattled Kiwis had he been picked.

“I think in camp situations I’m pretty relaxed and not so serious,” Marshall said. “I like bringing all the boys together, that’s how I am. They could have done with a bit of that.”

THE ALTERNATIVES

Kieran Foran is the obvious No.6 option to partner automatic halves pick Shaun Johnson for the Test against England in Denver, Colorado in June.

But Foran is only just getting his life back in order at Canterbury and has ruled himself out of two Kiwis tours in the past three years for injury reasons despite finishing the NRL season on the paddock.

He has played just once for New Zealand since the 2015 Anzac Test, and while no one could question his commitment to the cause when available, international footy doesn’t seem to be a high priority for Foran at present.

Kodi Nikorima has copped more than his share of criticism for the Broncos’ patchy start to 2018, but he’s been demoted to the interchange after Jack Bird starred in the halves with Nikorima sidelined for the win over the Warriors.

A hero of the Cowboys’ charge to last year’s grand final, Kiwis five-eighth incumbent Te Maire Martin has had to be content with a first-grade bench utility role with Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan both back on deck. Limited footy in the halves is not be an ideal lead-in to a Test match.

Thomas Leuluai, a veteran of 38 Tests and only a few months younger than Marshall, has played exclusively at hooker for Wigan this year.

Besides that recently-used quartet, the only eligible players with top-flight halves experience in 2018 are Mason Lino (actually not a bad option) and Benji’s brother, Bulldogs discovery Jeremy Marshall-King.

David Kidwell stepping down from the New Zealand head coaching post before he was pushed immediately sees the chances of Marshall’s Test renaissance coming to fruition skyrocket.

The Kiwis, with their reputation in tatters, need some good PR – which a Marshall recall would deliver in spades – and they must start approaching every Test with a State of Origin mentality: pick the best team for winning the next match, not some tournament in the distant future.

Mooted coaching contenders Laurie Daley, Geoff Toovey, Des Hasler and Michael Maguire will be astute enough to see that New Zealand’s best possible team includes Benji Marshall.

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  1. I love the idea. Not just for his to-the-line running and experienced head, but I think also for the spiritual lift he would give our young players out there. He would allow Shaun and RTS to do what they do best out the back, and would boost the belief in the team for sure. Benji has always been a tremendous ambassador for league in NZ, and I think his form makes him an absolute no brainer alongside Johnson in the halves.

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