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Benji's journey from 74kg teen sensation to grizzled old bench utility

The try that will forever be linked to the legend of Benji Marshall came about from him returning the ball from a position that Tim Sheens initially believed was the one that suited him best. 

Barring a final moment of Benji brilliance in Sunday night's grand final, the 36-year-old playmaker's career will be indelibly linked to his amazing flick pass highlight to send winger Pat Richards away to score a crucial try in the Wests Tigers' 2005 grand final win.

So worrisome were a series of injuries that Marshall suffered early in his career that he was told after a fourth reconstruction of his right shoulder it was unlikely he could continue if he hurt it again, so Sheens shifted him to the wing in defence.

The Tigers used the tactic in the 2005 decider and Marshall dropped back to support fullback Brett Hodgson as he fielded a kick from North Queensland halfback Johnathan Thurston into the corner.

With Hodgson passing infield to Marshall, the then 20-year-old ran the ball from near his own posts like a fullback.

He beat Thurston and broke into open space before finding Richards - who had shuffled infield to defend at centre - with a sublime flick pass that sent him racing for the try line.

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"That's the kind of return I reckon would have made him a good fullback," Sheens told NRL.com ahead of what may be Marshall's last game for South Sydney and just his second grand final appearance against Penrith on Sunday night.

"He started young and I was going to make him fullback. I thought he could have been a modern-type fullback like Matty Bowen. He could have been a bit like Darren Lockyer, who Wayne Bennett moved to fullback when he was smaller.

"I think Benji would have made a very good fullback.

"If you remember the famous try in the grand final, he came out of the left-hand corner because he had dropped deep for Thurston's kick and that was because we were playing him on the wing in defence. Not too many have picked up on that."

Marshall was a 74kg schoolboy when he played his first match for Wests Tigers at the 2003 World Sevens but 19 seasons later his official playing weight is 91kg and he now makes most of his tackles on middle forwards running near the ruck.

While no player this century has had a greater influence on kids than Marshall, the 2021 version is far different to the skinny youngster from Whakatane with the flashy sidestep and no-look pass who turned the game on its head 16 years ago.

"One of the things that a lot of people don't talk about when it comes to me is my resilience," Marshall said.

I think Benji would have made a very good fullback.

Tim Sheens

"I've had five shoulder reconstructions at a young age, I've missed 70 games through injury throughout my career so to bounce back from that for me is one of the things I'm most proud of.

"To play 19 years in this competition is something that's pretty special as well, but in terms of my game, I've had to change my body shape to try and not get injured, especially with my shoulders.

"I've probably had to change my game as I've gotten older to play a lot smarter and not so flashy."

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Schoolboy debut

Marshall was studying for his HSC at Keebra Park High School when he was called up by Sheens for a secret NRL debut against an Andrew Johns-led Newcastle team on July 27, 2003.

He played 50 minutes after replacing Robert Miles at fullback and returned to the Gold Coast to attend school the following day.

In his first media interview from the office of Keebra Park coach Greg Lenton, he spoke with a similar confidence and maturity that he had displayed 24 hours earlier at Campbelltown Stadium.

Remarkably, Marshall had only played touch football before filling in to help make up the numbers in a trial against an elite Canberra team while on a school trip to Queensland in 2001.

Offered a scholarship with Keebra Park, he was told it was a pathway to joining the Raiders but the school switched allegiances to the Tigers and Sheens immediately recognised his playing ability and football intelligence.

"Hell yeah, he was smart," Sheens said. "If I said something different six months after I told them, Benji and Robbie [Farah] would pick me up on it. You had to know what you were doing and what you were talking about."

'Unbelievable value'

Farah and Marshall played 13 seasons together at the Tigers and their partnership as hooker and playmaker defined the playing style the club was renowned for and which helped deliver a premiership in 2005.

However, even Farah is in awe of the way Marshall has continually reinvented himself since leaving the Tigers at the end of the 2013 season for a brief rugby union stint in Auckland before returning to the NRL with St George Illawarra six months later.

"He has been unbelievable value for the Rabbitohs this year," Farah told NRL.com. "I put my hand up, I thought he should have retired last year having left the Tigers.

"I didn't want him to go to another club and play poorly or get injured and not play his best football and sort of ruin his legacy.

"What he has provided on the field in whatever position he has been asked to play and then no doubt in the mentoring role for the young players around him has been unbelievable.

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"If he is going to retire there is no better way to finish than with a grand final ring. It is just a great reward for persistence."

Marshall hasn't ruled out playing again next season and Farah wouldn't be surprised if he did after thriving in the No.14 utility role created for him at Souths this season by Bennett.

Yet there were fears Marshall's career may be short-lived after he was forced to undergo a fifth shoulder reconstruction – one left and four right – in 2008 that involved a bone graft.

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"He has shown a lot of courage because his fifth surgery was an elective surgery by him to take a graft off his hip, which he said was the most painful thing he has ever had," Sheens recalled.

"The shoulder didn't trouble him but his hip gave him some problems for ages. The surgeon said 'if I see you again it will be the end of your career'.

"That was only halfway through his career so it has been a big effort to get to where he has got considering he was under the threat of another issue to that shoulder and it could have finished his career."

In his first five full seasons in the NRL, Marshall managed just 78 matches due to injuries and that included playing 27 games in 2005.

However, after the 2008 operation, which was described as a "super-powered reconstruction", Marshall missed just five games in the next five seasons before quitting the Tigers over a contract dispute.

Life after Tigers

After joining the Dragons midway through the 2014 season, he played the remaining 15 games and only missed two matches in 2015 but managed just 16 the following year and there was speculation that his career was coming to an end.

Just as he did this season, Bennett threw Marshall a lifeline in 2017 as a utility for the Broncos and he was offered the opportunity of a fairytale return with the Tigers the following year by now Penrith coach Ivan Cleary.

"Considering the injuries and the traumas he has been through it has been an amazing career," Sheens said. "He has moved on a few times. He has been around the traps a fair bit, with rugby union and back to league. He has had three or four clubs.

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"A lot of guys wouldn't sit on a bench considering his background, with Test football and things like that, so realistically he has been humble enough to accept the No.14 jumper.

"He did that in Brisbane with Bennett, he has done it again this year and the way he is talking he might do it again next year.

"He still covers your halves, and your fullback. He can catch anything and he can still beat you with his feet if he has got room to move, particularly from a deep position, as that try showed in 2005."

'Wests Tigers DNA is Benji Marshall'

Marshall was set to join Canterbury this season and play alongside his brother Jeremy Marshall-King but the Bulldogs withdrew their offer after the departure of CEO Andrew Hill and the 31-Test veteran, who has played 346 NRL matches, again called Bennett.

Souths, NSW and Australian hooker Damien Cook said he was grateful for the opportunity to play alongside one of his childhood idols.

"I still remember when he came into the competition and watching him while growing up," Cook said.

"I'd go to school the next day and try to emulate his footwork in the game the day before and try to do what he had done and try to re-enact his highlights

"Now I get to play alongside him and pass him the ball. No matter what he does after this it has been a special moment to be able to play alongside and he is definitely one of the greatest players to play this game."

Despite his unhappy second exit from the Tigers after the club decided not to offer him a new contract for this season, Sheens said Marshall would always be revered at Concord.

"If you said what is Wests Tigers DNA, it is Benji Marshall," Sheens said.

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"The standard of football, the flair and the ability to play wide rather than up the middle was because we had guys like him. Robbie controlling the game at No.9 was important too.

"We had various halfbacks after we lost Scotty Prince [in 2007] when the Titans came in but Benji was the consistent factor there at five-eighth, with Brett Hodgson at fullback for a while.

"It was going to be James Tedesco after that but we all know the story of what happened there. Mitchell Moses and young Luke Brooks were going to be the succession plan that was set up when I was there.

"He has matured, he is a dad now with kids. He is obviously very different now to what he was then but he is still the same talent – even though he plays more to the game plan. In those days we played to him."