Benji wises up to NRL reality
It's not the grand final rematch, and it's not the clash where my Raiders need to beat the Tigers to keep their season alive, but for me, Monday night's Dragons versus Storm game throws up one of the most exciting Round 16 match-ups – and St George Illawarra recruit Benji Marshall is a big part of that.
The Kiwi prodigy is never far from the spotlight. It used to be because of his brilliance: his sidestep, his no-look pass, the X-Factor that oozed out of him that meant every kid (not just Tigers fans) wanted to be him. Then, when things started to go wrong at the Tigers, he still featured heavily in the press – albeit for not-so-flattering reasons: The move to rugby union in New Zealand (that didn't pay off) and now his return to the game that made him a household name. And to a team that has one of the proudest histories in rugby league – that is fighting to restore pride in the Red V.
I'm a loud and proud Benji Marshall fan. I like him. I think he is a really decent bloke – who sometimes is misunderstood. I think he is a proud man who has learnt a lot about the real lows of sport over the past couple of years, and he readily admits that.
"You've got to find confidence – I'm trying to realise I'm not who I used to be and I'm growing up a bit," he says. "I can't play the way I used to – I'm not 70kg anymore. I'm only just starting to notice I'm getting old now; I don't recover how I used to... I need to play like a 29-year-old, and that means leading by example. My head is a lot smarter than it used to be."
And he's exactly right. Benji isn't that 18-year-old super star anymore... But I believe he can still be a 29-year-old superstar. There are players in our game who rise above – who are crucial members of their team – who may not do all the fancy, electrifying stuff every game. But when they're missing, their teams don't function nearly as well. Benji showed against the Sharks in Round 13 – and even a little bit against the much stronger Rabbitohs outfit in Round 12 – that he can still pull off some of the trademark moves (just not as often – and that's ok... he doesn't need to play that role anymore).
"I've had a good look over the past five games I've played. I started slow – I really fell into the trap of thinking I was back where I needed to be and that I could score off any play... I'd do something good then immediately do something not so good," he says.
Combinations take time – especially in the playmaking roles. And Monday night against the Storm will be only his sixth game back in rugby league – and his sixth game ever for the Dragons. I cannot wait to see how Benji rises to the occasion.
Melbourne were fantastic last week. Billy Slater was as dangerous as ever – the entire squad look back to their clinical best. Benji has always been a player who thrives on adversity and a challenge, and I hope he does on this occasion.
I also hope Trent Merrin is a late inclusion… there's enough talent in the Dragons' side to push the Storm… but they'll need to be at their best and I'm predicting an entertaining 80 minutes of football!