Tears for Benji? Yeah, nah

There was at least one set of dry eyes in the house as Benji Marshall made an emotional return to his beloved Kiwis to face Tonga on Saturday night.

It was emotional.

That’s the best way to describe Benji Marshall’s return to the Kiwis after almost seven years in exile, at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night.

Benji cried. Plenty of folks choked up watching him cry. In that regard, it was a bit like a wedding ceremony, or, more accurately, a renewal of vows.

It was a nice moment, great for Benji and great for a Kiwis brand that is still more than a little tarnished by losing to Tonga in pool play and then bowing out against, ahem, the mighty Fiji Bati without scoring a try in the 2017 World Cup quarterfinals.

The ABB (anyone but Benji) era, such as it was, is officially over. Which is great.

If you sense a ‘but’ coming, you aren’t about to be disappointed.

You see, this column’s impression of Benji, based on a number of professional interactions and the testimony of others, is that he’s a bit of dick. At least, he was. People change.

But it’s hard not to think that Benji’s ability to make people think he is a dick was a significant factor in his international exile; that it was very much self-inflicted.

It is, of course, possible that personality played zero part in Marshall’s fall from World Cup winning superstar, and then Kiwis captain, to a situation where Tohu Harris, Kodi Nikorima and even Isaac John played in the halves for the Kiwis, while he did not over a period spanning well over half a decade.

It’s also possible the Loch Ness Monster was one of the major contributors to Israel Folau’s GoFundMe campaign and is now patiently awaiting its refund.

Marshall’s game has always had holes in it and his unique approach hasn’t always lent itself to the type of coherent structure and game plan favoured by most, if not all, coaches.

But, even so, you’d have to suspect Marshall shaped as a more compelling option for the 2017 World Cup than, say, Te Maire Martin.

More likely, it seems, that Benji’s card had been marked in some way, perhaps by long-serving Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney, with the notation passed on to his unfortunate successor David Kidwell.

Both Kearney and Kidwell consistently dead-batted any questions about the curiosity of Marshall’s persistent non-selection, however the record speaks for itself in that regard. Marshall was frequently available throughout both coaches' tenures – and ultimately neither wanted him, even as a back-up option for major tours and tournaments.

Why not?

The most logical explanation is that Marshall wasn’t considered a good fit on the team chemistry front. Ergo, his habit of being a bit of a dick counted against him.

That’s the sort of statement that requires qualification.

In my dealings with Marshall, as a league reporter with the New Zealand Herald, he came across as aloof and arrogant. He backed up that impression with deeds, at one point brushing off a captains and coaches press conference ahead of a test match against Australia without proffering a reason.

Another member of the press pack from that time tells a story of the time Marshall, in his capacity as captain, was called on stage at a dinner function in England to say a few words on behalf of the touring Kiwis. While his English and Australian counterparts had no problems and complied with good grace, the first words out of Marshall’s mouth were: “I didn’t realise I had to do media today.”

It wasn’t a media function, and his words weren’t for the purposes of reporting.

Another colleague, who at the time was the league reporter for Sunday News, tells the story of tabling a media request with the Wests Tigers for an interview with Marshall – then the Kiwis captain – every single week of an entire NRL season. Marshall finally complied ahead of the final match of the season, telling the reporter he "felt sorry for him".

You get the picture. In his dealings with the New Zealand media, Marshall was a bit of a dick, somehow managing to foster an antagonistic relationship with a bunch of people who greatly admired him.

Fair to say there weren’t many Kiwi journalists left baffled by his eventual omission from the Kiwis.

Is that impression of Marshall fair? Possibly.

But it needs to be balanced against an entirely more positive impression Marshall has left on countless others. The Mad Butcher Sir Peter Leitch, for instance, raves about Marshall’s glowing character, and how he never failed to put up his hand when requested to make his time available for a good cause.

That charitable intent was evident, too, when he launched the (now de-registered) Benji Marshall Foundation to help raise money to combat child cancer.

Sadly for Marshall, those efforts were stunted when, in the aftermath of a fundraiser that reportedly raised $A250,000 by using him as a keynote speaker, he got in a 3.30am punch-up in a Sydney McDonald’s that resulted in him being charged with assault.

Marshall’s biggest contribution to the charitable endeavour had been lending it his standing as both a superstar player and pillar of the community. He skated on the assault charge, but his unimpeached reputation had taken a battering. The dimming of the star had begun.

And so to Saturday night, where the arc of a career that has trended back upwards in its twilight continued its path towards a fitting farewell.

Given the severity of the repeated shoulder injuries that blighted his early years, Marshall would have been at long odds to still be playing at the age 34. To be playing well enough to earn a return to the test arena after being spurned for so long is a truly remarkable achievement.

One thing that can never be questioned about Marshall is his love of and loyalty to his country. He has always regarded playing rugby league for New Zealand as the greatest honour.

So it was no wonder he cried when the time came to clinch arms with his long lost brothers and sing the national anthem.

But one can’t help wondering if those tears were driven by the realisation of what he’d missed out on for the last seven years, and a recognition that his exile had been, in part, at least, self-inflicted.

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