Benji: I didn't want the year to end
Dragons playmaker Benji Marshall said he felt so good by the latter stages of the 2014 season that he didn't want the year to end – and he now enters 2015 with "a lot to prove".
Marshall's return to the NRL mid-season was one of the big stories of 2014 and attracted huge media interest as he was snapped up by the Red V after an unhappy stint with the Auckland Blues in NZ rugby.
He was rushed into the starting side to face the Eels in Round 10, with St George Illawarra in a slump, having won just one of its past six to plunge down the ladder after winning its opening three games of the year.
It was a disappointing match all round, with Marshall understandably rusty and his side getting lapped 36-0.
The detractors were quick to blast the move but Marshall worked hard and by the late season had produced some classy performances – including a solo try in the Round 21 loss to the Roosters that made the end-of-season highlight reels. In 15 games Marshall finished with three tries, seven line breaks, and an impressive 13 try assists and 12 line break assists.
Coming into 2015 with a full pre-season behind him will mean no excuses, according to Marshall.
"I'm pretty excited because coming in halfway through the year, it's not an easy task when you don't know anyone," Marshall told NRL.com.
"I only had three training sessions with them and then I was playing with them. It's not a lot of time to build combinations and it started off really shaky."
But by the end he didn't want the season to finish – "because the longer it went on the better I got".
"I always knew it was going to be tough but I just wanted to get back into it and there's only one way to do it and that's get back on the field and play. As I went on I got a lot better and I learned a lot about myself.
"I feel like the back end of the year I got to where I wanted to be and felt like I could still get better. This pre-season I'm feeling a bit fitter and really starting to feel the benefits, which has been great.
"We've got a lot of great coaching staff around the place and a lot of great new players that have come in and freshened up the place and I'm just enjoying coming to training."
Marshall, a World Cup winner with New Zealand in 2008 and veteran of 27 Tests, will combine with 2014 England Four Nations five-eighth Gareth Widdop in the halves for the Dragons next year, making them the only NRL team other than Manly with an all international halves pairing (unless the Warriors decide to move Thomas Leuluai into the halves with Shaun Johnson).
"Don't worry mate we've got a lot to prove next year and we'll be out to do that!" Marshall insisted when reminded of the pair's profile.
He added that while Widdop isn't back at training following Four Nations commitments until January, it won't take long to get the combinations back.
"For me it's great because doing the [Auckland] Blues pre-seasons it's a different game and different body shape – it's been tough but I've really enjoyed it," he said.
Despite the high-profile starting halves, the club has also signed former Eels and Bulldogs playmaker Kris Keating from the UK for added depth, while there are also some talented juniors on the way up.
"We need that depth. Not just with Kris Keating; we've got a young guy, Drew Hutchinson, who I think is probably the future of the club in the halves.
"There's another guy, Shannon Crook, who I think is one of the most talented young players with one of the best skill sets I've ever seen for his age coming through. It's not like we're lacking depth now which is something a lot of clubs don't have in the halves."
Marshall dismissed suggestions the club's forward pack would suffer a repeat of its 2014 woes, when it struggled to win the battle in the middle and was criticised for a lack of size.
"People think we're lacking size in the forwards but we've bought a couple of guys who are massive and we're maybe a chance of signing Russell Packer. We've got a young guy from Gundagai Group 1 [Rulon Nutira] who I think can be a superstar, he's big, and another guy Rory O'Brien who's come through the grades then disappeared for a bit but he's back and looking great.
"We've also got big George Rose who as everyone knows is big George Rose. It's not like we're lacking size.
"We've still got your Ben Creaghs, Trent Merrins, Jack De Belins – it's not a small forward pack and we've got some exciting players in the backs. From my point of view we're going to have a big year. And that starts with my leadership with my role as a halfback and I feel like it's going to be a big one."
Marshall said despite some negative press around the club's recruitment strategy, including picking up a number of players who were not regular first graders at their previous clubs, he is confident the side will be a threat in 2015.
"From a players' point of view, we're excited – we've trained really hard over the past four weeks. Anything other than a top-eight finish is not acceptable for us next season. I'm confident in the side we have that we can do that.
"We haven't passed a ball yet out on the field, we haven't played a game, and until that happens, it's a bit early to judge how we're going to go. But as players we're confident."