A unique attacking talent whose arrival electrified the NRL and international scenes, Benji Marshall spearheaded some of New Zealand’s greatest Test triumphs from five-eighth and enjoyed a four-season stint as skipper.
Marshall later broke the Kiwis record for most Tests as captain (21) and equalled the mark for the longest Test career span (15 seasons) after memorably ending a seven-year hiatus from the national side in 2019.
The Whakatane-born touch rugby prodigy took up a rugby league scholarship with Keebra Park State High at the age 16 after starring in an impromptu trial appearance while on a school excursion to the Gold Coast.
The sliding doors opportunity would have an enormous impact on the code on both sides of the Tasman. An 18-year-old Marshall represented Australian Schoolboys and made his NRL debut for Wests Tigers – who were linked to Keebra Park – in 2003.
Marshall’s mesmerising footwork, speed and instinctive ball-playing caught the public’s imagination from the outset, but a shoulder injury cut his 2004 season short after just seven first-grade appearances.
But everything came together in 2005. After a sizzling start to the year with the Tigers – and still with only 15 NRL games under his belt – Marshall was called up to New Zealand’s Anzac Test squad. The 20-year-old’s eye-catching display was hailed as the biggest positive of the Kiwis’ 32-16 loss in Brisbane.
Marshall then set about compiling an astonishing highlights package in steering the unheralded Tigers to their first finals series and an unlikely premiership triumph. The hot-stepping No.6 scored 15 tries in 27 games, while he produced one of the most iconic moments in grand final history in the 32-16 defeat of North Queensland with a long break and an audacious flick pass to set up Pat Richards’ try.
Shoulder surgery ruled Marshall out of the Kiwis’ victorious Tri-Nations tour at the end of ’05, but he was selected on the bench for the 2006 Anzac Test despite a fractured cheekbone and dislocated shoulder disrupting the start of his NRL season. Genuine concerns emerged about Marshall’s future, though, after ongoing shoulder problems ended his 2006 campaign in June and caused him to miss half of 2007. He was unavailable for New Zealand’s end-of-year international series in both years.
The Kiwis boasted two of rugby league’s most dynamic young superstars in Marshall and Sonny Bill Williams but ultimately the pair lined up together just twice – in the 2006-07 Anzac Tests, with Marshall featuring at five-eighth in the latter. He was again absent for the 2008 Centenary Test against Australia at the SCG through injury but recovered to play in the Tigers’ last 16 games of the season.
Marshall scored two tries in a World Cup warm-up Test against Tonga 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 playing a leading hand in the 34-20 boilover against the Kangaroos in the Brisbane final. Marshall’s burst and offload set up a fortuitous first-half try for Jerome Ropati, he was on hand to scoop up Australian fullback Billy Slater’s errant pass and score a pivotal four-pointer after the break, his bomb led to Adam Blair’s late clincher and he booted two goals.
The Kiwis installed Marshall as their new captain in 2009. The early-season loss to Australia in Brisbane was to be the first of 18 straight appearances as Test skipper, leading New Zealand on its Four Nations tour of England and France at the end of the year.
Fourth in the 2010 Dally M Medal count as the Tigers returned to the playoffs for the first time since their grand final success, Marshall subsequently enjoyed arguably his finest hour on the international stage. He scored a try and kicked four goals in the Four Nations-opening win over England in Wellington, booted another eight goals in a heavy defeat of Papua New Guinea in Rotorua and brilliantly set up two tries in a late comeback as well as slotting four goals in a loss to Australia at Eden Park.
But Marshall almost singlehandedly lifted his side to a 16-12 triumph over the Kangaroos in the final as the Kiwis again reigned at Suncorp Stadium. He put Shaun Kenny-Dowall over for New Zealand’s only try of the first half, cut the deficit to two points via a breath-taking grubber for Jason Nightingale to score, and produced two magnificent touches in the extraordinary 65-metre match-winner finished off by Nathan Fien in the 79th minute. Marshall capped a banner year by becoming just the third New Zealander to win the Golden Boot award.
Marshall was named Dally M Five-eighth of the Year in 2011, took out his second RLIF Five-eighth of the Year honour (a gong he also collected in 2009) and was named the Kiwis’ Player of the Year, but five Tests garnered just one win – against Wales during the Four Nations. He led the Kiwis in both matches of a minimised 2012 schedule: Tests losses to Australia in April and October by eight-point margins.
Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney announced in February 2013 that Marshall would no longer be captain, while an injury ruled him out of contention for the Canberra clash with the Kangaroos two months later – ending a run of 24 straight Tests. Meanwhile, his relationship with Wests Tigers unravelled and he sought a release to join the Blues Super Rugby franchise. It was a sad conclusion to a decade-long tenure with the Tigers that saw him become the first player to bring up 1,000 points and the third to make 200 appearances for the joint venture. The code switch also quashed any prospect of Marshall being picked in New Zealand’s RLWC squad.
Marshall’s 15-a-side foray in Auckland was not a success and the 29-year-old was back in the NRL with St George Illawarra by May 2014. He finished equal-second in the Dally M Medal count as the Dragons reached the finals in 2015 but was overlooked for the under-strength Kiwis’ post-season tour of England.
After an impressive season as a back-up half/utility under Wayne Bennett at the Broncos in 2017, Marshall accepted a deal to return to the Tigers. He had lost a yard or two of pace and the mind-blowing attacking wizardry was less frequent, but the veteran’s calm leadership and direction was invaluable for a rebuilding club.
Unlucky not to get a call-up in 2018, the 34-year-old was named by Tigers and Kiwis coach Michael Maguire for the 2019 mid-season Test against Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium. Marshall’s outpouring of emotion during the New Zealand national anthem was the indelible memory of the match, but he was also a strong performer at halfback in the 34-14 win.
Marshall – who also became just the fourth New Zealander to play 300 NRL games during 2019 – rounded off a remarkable renaissance by being named Kiwis captain at the end of the season for the Tests against Australia and Great Britain. The third-oldest Kiwis player in history, he broke Gary Freeman’s record for most Tests as New Zealand skipper and equalled Kurt Sorensen (1975-89) for the longest Test career span in what would ultimately prove his last campaign in the international arena.
The 35-year-old became just the second player (simultaneously with Chris Lawrence) to make 250 appearances for Wests Tigers during 2020 and captained the club in six of his 16 outings, but the Tigers cut ties with the off-contract modern rugby league great at the end of the season.
Bennett and South Sydney threw Marshall a lifeline late in the 2021 pre-season and he played an important role in the Rabbitohs’ charge to the grand final, while he also turned out for the Māori All Stars in Townsville. Playing with effervescence and brilliance belying the date on his birth certificate, the NRL’s oldest player starred in 22 games – predominantly as an interchange, but also making starts at five-eighth, halfback, hooker and centre – and came off the bench in Souths’ loss to Penrith in the decider.
Marshall also broke Blair’s record for the most first-grade games played by a non-Australian, finishing up with 347 appearances (equal-seventh in premiership history), while his 19 seasons in the competition equalled the all-time record held by Cameron Smith and Paul Gallen.
The Kiwi legend was afforded one of the most glowing farewells from the rugby league fraternity ever seen when he made an emotional retirement announcement in October 2021.