Benji's Bronco odyssey brings rich rewards

Benji's Bronco odyssey brings rich rewards

Benji Marshall insists that the game that made him famous was never a burden, he just lost sight of exactly how much it means to so many people.

This time last year, as he appeared in his regular spot on NRL 360, the modern father of the flick pass cut a forlorn figure. A former icon who had knocked back an offer to stay at St George Illawarra and who had been blamed for much of their failings all of a sudden had no one to play with.

As he and prospective clubs struggled to agree to his market value, in reaching out to Wayne Bennett to seek guidance, Marshall turned a phone call into a career lifeline and enjoyed what he describes as the greatest period of growth in his 32 years on this earth.

When he runs out at halfback for the Broncos against the Roosters in Friday night's Qualifying Final he won't be the Benji Marshall of old but he will possess the same giddy passion that made his arrival into the NRL such compelling theatre.

We fell in love with his free-spirited style, and by stepping away from his own enveloping aura in Sydney and lining up alongside part-timers and hopefuls in Queensland's Intrust Super Cup this season, Marshall rediscovered just what it meant to call himself a first-grader.

‌"I think I may have taken it a little bit for granted at some stages," Marshall said ahead of just his second NRL finals match since 2011. 

"Just being young and not understanding how important it was to a lot of people and finding the motivation.

"I was probably a little bit guilty of going through the motions a lot of the time. And that's what I mean about learning a lot of lessons about myself and coming here.

"The last 12 months I've probably grown the most as a person and understanding myself the most as a person. When you can do that it helps you to be better on the field as well.

"It's been a positive year for me. People might think it's up and down but coming up to Brisbane is the best thing to happen to me in my career.

"Playing with this bunch of players has been a privilege for me and I think I've learnt a lot about myself this year, probably more than I have in the last 12."

One of the game's most influential figures of the past two decades, Marshall has taken the field for Redcliffe on three occasions this year alongside team-mates who spend their days working as labourers, electricians, groundsmen and one who installs windows and doors.

If you'd forgotten why you started playing in the first place, guys who work five days a week, train three nights a week and play on Sunday will give you a timely reminder.

"I really enjoyed my time at Redcliffe. It was probably the most fun I've had playing footy in a long time and it probably helped me find my feet back in first grade again," said Marshall, who plays his 11th game for the Broncos this week and the 266th NRL game of his career.

"The biggest thing is that when something is taken away from you it makes you hungrier to have it back again and that's obviously playing first grade.

"That's the pinnacle of playing rugby league and the good thing about going back and playing at Redcliffe is that you get to see a bunch of guys that turn up there every week happy to just be there, enjoying their footy and really putting in. They work most of the week and you see how much perspective that sort of puts on it.

"What I got from the guys at Redcliffe was just how passionate they were about playing and it made me really appreciate it a bit more how much I wanted to be playing first grade."

 


The cut-price insurance policy bought by Broncos coach Wayne Bennett last November has proven to be an astute investment in a season in which Ben Hunt, Anthony Milford, Andrew McCullough and Darius Boyd have all been missing at various stages.

"The key to it all has been Benji," Bennett says. 

"He's been able to fill in for us on a number of occasions and he's a quality player. That's helped us enormously.

"The fun's back in Benji's life and he's enjoying things. I worked with him in the All Stars and at times I thought he was under a bit of pressure and wasn't as enjoyable as it should have been, but he's come here and been allowed to just be a player here.

"No one asked him to do any more in this club. Just be the best you can and that's what he's done. I'm really pleased with the way he's responded to that."

Admitting he will return to the Wests Tigers next year a changed man, Marshall will also be an expectant father with he and wife Zoe announcing only in the past week that they are due to have their first child next February.

It's put another coil in that spring-loaded step of his and made his short tenure in Brisbane even more memorable.

Whether they choose to name their child after a Brisbane suburb – Carina? Jindalee? Moorooka? – remains to be seen but Broncos teammate Adam Blair has no doubt that escaping the Sydney fishbowl has brought out the Benji of old.

"You notice a change when you've played with him before and you've been where he's been," said Blair, who moved to the Tigers in 2012 in order to play alongside Marshall.

"It's been a bit of a blessing in disguise to come up here and be away from his family and friends, to be able to sit back a bit and enjoy his football and enjoy himself off the field with his partner. 

"He turns up here with a lot of energy and excitement and he's good for the young kids here, good for the group.

"It's great to see someone of his stature that's been around for a long time and still enjoying his football because he seems to have got a new lease of life."