With the NRL season officially run and won, it would be remiss of me to let the occasion pass without farewelling one of the most naturally gifted and polarising players that I have ever seen.
I will never forget settling into our seats at Campbelltown Stadium on July 27, 2003, when Dad said to me, “Wait until you see this Benji kid on the Tigers’ bench today. I saw him play State Cup [touch football] for Wests. He’s got a great step and a brilliant cut-out pass.”
Well, I didn’t have to wait long. Benji came on in the 14th minute playing fullback.
His first impact was not a positive one. With Newcastle kicking through, Benji hesitated a little and the Newcastle winger pinched the ball to score. His next touch, however, would spark the eleven-season career sensation that finally came to an end this year.
With the Tigers taking the ball up towards halfway, Marshall, running right-to-left, put on a step that he would soon trademark, and skipped straight through the Knights’ line. From this moment, I was hooked.
Hold on tight
The years that followed were a rollercoaster with highlights including watching him play in the open-field that is the World Sevens to suffering through watching him incur shoulder injury after shoulder injury.
Never had I seen a player at the Wests Tigers club who could single-handedly change the outcome for his side. With a combination of speed, a step and a no-look flick-pass, Benji had us all on the edge of our seats. The excitement reached the summit, of course, in 2005 when Marshall, along with his arsenal of Scott Prince and Robbie Farah, took the unbacked Tigers to premiership glory.
Of course, it hasn’t been all roses. Benji has had some real stinkers over the last ten years. Dropped balls, cut-out passes that hit row 3, penalties that failed to find touch, and even goal-kicking slumps have riddled his career, in particular the last three years.
I have always claimed to be Benji’s biggest fan. Sure, I have backed him well beyond the point when others began to turned on him. But, in truth, there have been times where I became fed up. It wasn’t the form slumps. As they say, “Form is temporary, class is permanent.” But the frustration of watching a player of Benji’s brilliance appear disinterested had become too much.
In his autobiography, Benji tells the reader that he is motivated by proving the critics wrong. Never did he have a better chance at that than he did this year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
When Benji announced that he would leave the club and the NRL, I was both upset and angry. It really did feel like a break-up. What had I done wrong? Had the last ten years meant nothing? But all I got was, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
A lot of information came out of the wash in the coming weeks and a lot more never will. Eventually, I came to accept that after season’s end I would never see Marshall in a Tigers jumper again.
In Round 25, after a loss to arch-rivals Souths, Benji could not hold back the emotions as the club made he and Robbie the inaugural Wests Tigers life members. It was a touch of class and a way of saying, on behalf of the club and fans, that he will be missed and will always be remembered for his service.
Watching a crowd, that he had polarised for years, cheer his name in unison as he took his final lap of honour around Allianz Stadium was spine-tingling. The lap took more than thirty minutes as fans wanted a final handshake, photo or autograph. All he willingly gave.
Benji, it is with a heavy heart that I wish you farewell. Although we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, the club will never be the same without you. Thanks for the memories. You will be sorely missed but please remember that you are welcome to drop by anytime.
A final glimpse at Benji brilliance…
My two favourite tries of all time
Of course there is that try from the 2005 Grand Final.
But my favourite is the one that really makes Benji stand out from the rest. No one steps like this but him.
Please leave your comments and memories below.