Immortal Legacy: Benji Marshall saved International Rugby League


On Wednesday, 6th October 2021, one of the greatest rugby league careers in modern times, came to an end. Benjamin Quentin ‘Benji’ Marshall, a dreamer from the small New Zealand town of Whakatāne, played 19 exhilarating seasons in the National Rugby League (NRL).

Whakatāne Town | Courtesy: whakatane.com

While much coverage has been given to his tremendous contribution at club level, his enduring legacy had a far greater impact on International Rugby League’s modern rejuvenation, particularly in the Oceania Region.

The Australian Kangaroos had been dominating International Rugby League for many decades. If you weren’t a Kangaroos supporter, a Test Match was seen as an ominous burden on the game as a whole, with predictable score lines and one-sided demoralizing encounters.

Benji Marshall | Courtesy: Eva Rinaldi

In 2005, Benji Marshall made his International Rugby League debut for New Zealand, with an eye-catching display that was highlighted as a major positive for the Kiwis. Later in that same year, a spirited New Zealand side, led by the inspirational Hall of Famer, Stacey Jones, defeated the Kangaroos, 24-0 in Leeds to win the Tri-Nations Final. It was this pivotal victory that built momentum for Kiwi players like Benji to be inspired to become the number one team in International Rugby League.

After a series of concerning shoulder complications that almost ended his Rugby League career prematurely, a triumphant 2005 NRL Premiership victory with the West Tigers put Benji back on Rugby League’s centre stage.

The infamous flick pass at the 2005 NRL Grand Final | Courtesy: NRL.com

In 2008, Benji’s greatest and arguably most revered career achievement in the eyes of Kiwi fans, occurred at Rugby League’s Pinnacle. In a World Cup warm-up Test against Tonga, Marshall scored two tries and started all five of the Kiwis’ matches at the Australia-hosted tournament. He scored a match-sealing try in the 32-22 semi-final victory over England, before achieving greatness in the 34-20 upset victory against the conquering Kangaroos in the auspicious World Cup final. New Zealand had finally ended Australia’s 33-year domination at World Cups in what many would have considered an impossible sporting feat.

NZ Kiwis won the 2008 Rugby League World Cup against Australia 34-20 | Courtesy: digiarnie

The Kiwis installed Marshall as their new captain in 2009, leading New Zealand on its Four Nations tour of England and France at the end of the year. He won the RLIF Five-Eighth of the Year, beating the great Darren Lockyer of Australia. 

In 2010, at the peak of his powers, Marshall asserted himself yet again with a try and kicked four goals in the Four Nations-opening win over England in Wellington. He booted another eight goals against Papua New Guinea in Rotorua and skillfully assisted with two tries and four goals against Australia at Eden Park. However, it was in the final where Marshall almost single-handedly lifted his side to a 16-12 triumph over the Kangaroos as the Kiwis were victorious again at Suncorp Stadium. Marshall capped off the stellar year winning the Golden Boot award as the World’s Best Rugby League Player.

Rugby League Golden Boot Award | Courtesy: Daily Mail

One major area that the NRL has not mastered as other professional sports, has been the professional acknowledgement and marketing of “iconic” superstars of the game, especially from a particular cultural background.

At present, approximately 50% of all NRL Players have Pacific Islander heritage and in pre-pandemic modern times, have been the backbone to the financial rejuvenation of both domestic and international rugby league.

With the NRL recently announcing a 17th Team from South-Eastern Queensland will join the competition in 2023, a significant section of the rugby league community can only ponder at the missed opportunity of a potential 2nd New Zealand NRL team, based in either Wellington or Christchurch.

Unfortunately, Benji Marshall will be remembered as the greatest rugby league player to have never played a State of Origin match.

From 2006 onwards, had the NRL been adequately organised and inclusive for another Pacific expansion, with a supportive marketing campaign around Benji Marshall in his prime of 18 straight appearances as Kiwi captain, a thriving New Zealand rugby league derby would exist today. With the NRL’s harsh stance on State of Origin eligibility, actively discriminating against players with a passion of representing Pasifika heritage on the international stage, a potential NZ ‘North’ vs ‘South’ rugby league derby could have filled the void.

Towards the twilight of his representative career, in the 2019 mid-season Test against a talented Tongan side at Mt Smart Stadium, Marshall’s emotional stand during the New Zealand national anthem and traditional haka showed his teammates and future generations, the gravitas of representing the New Zealand Kiwis. He displayed a strong performance at halfback in the 34-14 win. When he was named Kiwis captain at the end of the season for the Tests against Australia and Great Britain, he beat Gary Freeman’s record for most Tests as Kiwi captain and equaled Kurt Sorensen for longest Kiwi International career.

The dreamer from Whakatāne | Courtesy: Gerard Barrau

As the 2021 Rugby League World Cup is delayed to 2022 due to the pandemic, there is no doubt in acknowledging that renewed interest in International Rugby League is from the modern success of players from Pacific Nations, led by the New Zealand Kiwis and more recently, Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa.

Legends win Premierships, Immortals save entire sports formats with rejuvenating, inspiring, and memorable performances that pull crowds through the turnstiles into stadiums. 

The dreamer from Whakatāne deserves to become the NRL’s first Pacific Immortal.

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