Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Benji's on drip feed rather than fast forward

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Benji Marshall. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Benji Marshall. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It's a neat transtasman fit. Benji Marshall is the brand ambassador for health insurer nib and for those who have watched his sporting career, that stands for natural inside back.

He is the natural topic of conversation in the Blues region as the dearth of Super rugby success moves into its second decade.

Benji, alone, will not be the side's saviour but if the team sparks and his talent begins to flow, the Blues will be an awkward opponent. For a small word, it carries plenty of clout.

The Highlanders' "hired help" wilted badly last year, a roster of rugby players whose high-profile collective venom finished last in the New Zealand section and second to last overall in the competition with just three victories.

This season the Blues could field 11 All Blacks to start and while that sporting wealth offers promise and a trickledown trail of benefits for the wider squad, it does not ensure success.

The Blues need a director, or several of them, to fit all the pieces together, someone to "see" the field, take command, make the plays, and offer the right variation to bring out the best in his teammates.

Marshall wants that five-eighths job and is being drip fed into the nuances of the game.

All his rugby and league life he has played as first receiver and is used to the pressure of that role. The Blues staff were happy to agree to his request to play five-eighths and have left him there rather than muddle his thoughts with ideas about other positions.

The staff have given Marshall plenty of work inside the classroom and on the training field as initial preparation for this season. They have unpicked his game and taught him how to pass, where to stand and how to call his plays.

"Every day I'm learning something new - the way you defend from lineouts, the way you defend from scrums, where you stand after you kick the ball. It's a completely different way of thinking," he said.

The Blues coaches have decided not to overload Marshall in the trial games against the Hurricanes and Waratahs last night in Sydney.

Their logic seems to be to give Marshall enough match practice without overloading his thoughts. They want him to have a decent hit-out then think about how he reacted while watching a teammate do the business in the next half.

No one knows the best recipe and players react differently. Blues coaches John Kirwan, Mick Byrne and Grant Doorey have all played both codes so have that experience to draw on.

Most high-profile converts have been outside or midfield backs like Israel Folau, Sonny Bill Williams, Scott Gibbs, Daryl Halligan, Wendell Sailor, Matthew Ridge, Craig Innes and Marc Ellis.

There have been loose forward code-hoppers like Scott Gourlay, Mark Carter and the remarkable lock Brad Thorn.

Jonathan Davies, Ricky Stuart, Wally Lewis and Cooper Cronk were inside backs who went to league but few of any profile have swapped from league to rugby with much impact.

Perhaps with that in mind and the demands of a lengthy season ahead, the Blues have decided it is best to drip-feed Marshall into their plans. He will be keen to impress as injuries bite into the roster and that assessment will get a last pre-season rating when the Blues play the Chiefs next Friday in Rotorua.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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