Sportsperson of the Year Finalist: Benji Marshall

By Steve Deane

Every day this week in news, business and sport we feature the finalists for the Herald New Zealander of the Year. Top honours will appear in the Weekend Herald on Saturday.

Benji Marshall. Photo / Getty Images
Benji Marshall. Photo / Getty Images

After his side's Four Nations Final defeat, Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens was asked if he'd ever before witnessed a scene like injured centre Brent Tate's half-time emotional breakdown.

"Yes, I have," said Sheens. "When [injuries] are bad I've seen that before."

Of course he has. Sheens has been Kiwis captain Benji Marshall's club coach for the Whakatane prodigy's entire NRL career.

He was there when Marshall had shoulder-strengthening surgery in 2005. He was there one year later when Marshall suffered two dislocations in eight weeks. He was there when Marshall fractured his shoulder against the Storm in 2007.

So were the dressing room cameras to catch the tears on Marshall's cheeks.

Three minutes into the first match of 2008, Marshall tore knee ligaments.

To say injuries have been unkind is a bit like saying Santa could do with losing a pound or two.

So when Marshall looks back on a stellar 2010 it will be his durability that gives him most satisfaction.

Well, that and lifting the Four Nations trophy after sparking a dramatic length-of-the-field comeback victory over the Kangaroos on the stroke of full-time.

Once a can't-miss superstar-in-waiting, Marshall looked awfully close to striking out as his fragile shoulders failed him.

But those dark days now appear well behind him. Marshall played every match for both club and country this season.

The 2161 minutes he spent on the paddock as the Tigers went within a game of the grand final were the seventh-most logged by any NRL player. His 203 points from 12 tries and 76 goals were the third most in the competition. His 23 try assists ranked fourth, and any list of league's plays-of-the-season would be heavily populated with Marshall specials.

Then there were the Kiwis. He always talked a good game, but for much of a six-match season the Marshall genius was only spasmodic. He was the difference between the two sides against England in Wellington and produced the only moments worth celebrating in a heavy defeat to the Kangaroos at Eden Park.

The captain said he'd looked his teammates in the eye and promised to play better in the final in Brisbane. He set up the Kiwis' first two tries with a masterful (if forward) pass and a fine grubber. But with two minutes remaining, 90 metres and five tackles separated the Kiwis from victory.

Sixty metres out on the last tackle, Marshall jinked right, drew two defenders and created an overlap for Shaun Kenny-Dowall. The big centre drew and fed Jason Nightingale whose in-field Hail Mary fell kindly for the supporting Marshall. The captain's over-the-shoulder pass to Nathan Fien would have been brilliant for anybody else but was merely routine for a player who has finally lived up to his billing.

An individual in a team sport, assessing Marshall's sportsperson of the year case isn't easy.

Without Kenny-Dowall or Nightingale's efforts, Marshall's best endeavours would have ended in failure.

But in big league finals you are only as good as your most brilliant playmaker. It takes a truly gifted player to unlock international defences. For decades the Kiwis have laboured without such a talent.

Not any more. In Marshall they have a true champion. The result is that they are champions.

OTHER NOMINEES

*Niki Hamblin - running.
*Hamish Bond and Eric Murray - rowing
*Ryan Nelsen - soccer.Alison Shanks - cycling.
*All Blacks - rugby.

- NZ Herald

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