By STEVE MASCORD
“I WAS shattered by that,” says Benji Marshall, staring back at me, unflinching.
Since his return to rugby league last year, the iconic Kiwi magician has given a number of brutally honest, self-critical interviews. We know already that his ill-fated move to the Auckland Blues has changed Benji irrevocably – but it’s a story which has so far barely had its surface scratched.
But before we mounted our black leather swivel chairs in the business centre of the Marriott Victoria & Albert Hotel in Manchester, Marshall had entertained a Leigh team-mate of FuiFui MoiMoi.
The young Championship player, accompanied to the hotel by Fui himself, was such a fan he had even brought a copy of Marshall’s biography for him to autograph. Given the goodwill wafting about, wading straight into this interview with hard arse questions had seemed a little ungracious.
So League Week waits a little before asking about the comment on midweek television of Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens – following his sacking – that “players get rid of coaches. It’s generally senior players too,”
“I still haven’t actually spoken to him about it,” Marshall says when the subject is raised, after saying the implication shattered him.
“I don’t understand how it can actually get to that, where that’s actually put out there.
“….firstly, that I could have any influence on a decision the board makes, or a decision by whoever makes that decision.
“I’m just baffled at how it got to me. There was heaps of shit floating around about it but I never said a bad word about Tim. I don’t know how it got to that.
“I think the perception is that players have a lot of pull but the only pull I’ve ever tried to influence is on the field and off the field you just do what you’re told, man.
“What confuses me is how it gets put on the players that we have that control.
“Put it this way: if I had control over the Tigers from 2008 to 2012, none of my mates would have left. I lost eight of my best mates through that time at the Tigers and the main reason I enjoyed being there was the family atmosphere at the club and having all those blokes around – which slowly got demolished group by group. In the end, it just me and Robbie (Farah) left. “
“You know what? People can have their own views or whatever but I’m not going to go out of my way to change who I am. I’m just the same person I was.”
Is he, though? During a half-hour chat while his St George Illawarra team-mates play cards on the other side of a glass partition, 29-year-old Marshall says enough to indicate plenty has changed.
His thoughts on the extremely disturbing trend of Holden Cup players taking their own lives are particularly forthright. Wests Tigers Mosese Fotuaika was the first.
“I see some of these kids now and it’s a mental battle just to get through a season “I think what the 20s does is create a false sense of making it,” says Benji, after warning he has “a rant” prepared on the subject
”A lot of the Pacific islanders, particularly, their families create a mindset that playing under 20s is making it.
“From the outset, these kids are put in a position where they’re trying to prove to their families ‘this is it, I’ve made it’ and if they don’t move on from that, it’s like a failure and if they fail in that arena of under 20s, it’s like the end of the world.
“When reserve grade was there, some of these kids would come through and play reserve grade which was with men. And when you’ve got men in the team mixed with boys, the men can give advice on live experience, like coping with the pressure or ‘if you’re having problems come here and I’ll look after you’.
“…which I did, coming through. In Under 20s, it’s boys with boys who haven’t lived. You’re too embarrassed to tell your mate you’re having dramas mentally. They all want to be macho men, ‘I’m the man’, you know?
“… older people could recognise when a young guy needed help. What I had was Mark O’Neill, John Skandalis, Ben Galea saying every week ‘are things alright at home’, you know? I had issues with money growing up, they’d say ‘do you need money?’ and I’d borrow $100 or whatever. They’d look after me.
“Whereas these kids … if they get injured, their family’s not getting paid. A lot of them send their money home, which a lot of people don’t know, because they feel obliged. That’s just the Polynesian thing, you know?”
“When I went there (rugby union), they were really honest with me, like about where I was fitness-wise.
“They were really honest with me about what I needed to do, what I needed to become. That’s something I never had during the back end of my time at the Tigers – that honesty.
“I thought I was going alright – and no-one was telling me that I wasn’t. Sometimes you need to hear the truth, especially when you’re an older player, or else you get caught just coasting and that’s what I was doing.
“I was just coasting and thinking everything was going sweet. When you’re playing, sometimes you don’t see it. You need other people to help point that out.
“I just got too comfortable in my position. There was never a time when I was under pressure from someone else coming through who was going to take my position
“Even my family wouldn’t say anything, which is … which is a shame.”
We’re just linking together Marshall’s compelling quotes now. A key marker in Marshall’s dramatic fall from grace in rugby league was being sacked as New Zealand captain in February 2013.
“My type of captaincy is different to Simon Mannering or, say, Ruben Wiki’s style of captaincy. I think what I tried to do was change my personality and not be, kind of, joking around and be more serious.
“I think if I was ever a captain again, I’d be the same me – just relaxed and have a laugh, have a joke and play my best on the field.”
Marshall believes he has “four or five” years left in rugby league. He likes the idea of being a coach afterwards. His post-career prospects in that area would have been seriously lessened had he stayed in rugby union.
But he went there for a challenge – one that, in the end, he was not up to. And even that is OK by him now. There is no pain on his face when I ask him about the day he decided to come back.
“It was the Monday after Easter Sunday,” he says.
“I walked into the coach’s office and he said the way he thought it was going, it wasn’t working for him. He said it didn’t look like it was working for me. He said ‘you can go back and play club rugby and learn your trade there’ and I said ‘you’ve got the best coaches here, why would I do that?’
“And then he said ‘you can go back and play league’.
“Melbourne were close. I made the best decision for my footy. Even my family was telling me ‘go to Melbourne’, everyone I knew was saying ‘go to Melbourne’ but I was after a bit of longevity. Melbourne could only offer me the rest of the year.”
“Probably just be myself. The more I took the game seriously, the worse I got. The more relaxed I am, the less worried about what happens, it just seems to be better.
“Whatever happens, I don’t care about anyone else anymore. I used to care about everyone, all my mates. Now it’s just let it happen and if they need advice, they’ll come and ask.
“Off the field is more important to me now than on the field.
“But I don’t think I’d change anything., Where I am now in my life – more important than in footy – is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK