Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: SBW-Benji may clash in NZ

A rare moment with Sonny Bill Williams and Benji Marshall on the pitch together. Photo / Ezra Shaw
A rare moment with Sonny Bill Williams and Benji Marshall on the pitch together. Photo / Ezra Shaw

Sonny Bill Williams' first match back in rugby league could be a Foundation Cup clash with the Sydney Roosters pitched against Benji Marshall and the Tigers - in New Zealand.

The two Sydney clubs have been approached to play a pre-season match in this country, before the start of the 2013 NRL season in March at a venue yet to be decided.

While his return to league is yet to be 100 per cent confirmed, it is generally accepted that Williams will be at the Bondi club next year. The delay in putting pen to paper and lack of a formal announcement is to avoid his Japanese rugby earnings counting towards the Roosters' salary cap in 2013.

The Tigers initially planned to play a invitation side near Marshall's home region in the Bay of Plenty but confirmed they have since been approached with the proposal to play the Roosters.

"There has been a proposal put to us to bring the team down for our traditional Foundation Cup clash with the Roosters," said a Tigers' spokesman.

"If everything comes together, it would be a great opportunity to bring Benji up against Sonny Bill in New Zealand and it would be a hell of a showpiece."

The Foundation Cup has been contested by the two clubs since 2007, in a pre-season fixture which also marks the establishment of league in Australia. The Tigers represent NRL foundation clubs Western Suburbs and the Balmain Tigers (who merged in 2000) and the Roosters are one of just two other teams (along with Souths) who competed in the the inaugural year of 1908. The match has always been held at Sydney Football Stadium although this season it was played at Campbelltown.

The attraction for both Australian teams coming to these shores would be the bottom line; crowds for the fixture in Sydney have been steadily falling (16,000 in 2007, 10,000 in 2009 and under 7000 in 2011) but the match is sure to attract a bumper gate in New Zealand. Both clubs - but particularly the Tigers - are cash-strapped at the moment and would welcome the boost to their coffers.

"These days the reality is you don't want to put your talent out for pennies," says the Tigers' official. "In the past a trial was just that; a chance for your team to have a run under match conditions and try out some new combinations. Now there is a definite financial and marketing element to it."

Marshall and Williams have clashed before in the NRL, although it was a relatively rare event as Williams' time with the Bulldogs coincided with Marshall's horror run of injuries, where he missed a large part of the 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons through injury.

In 2005, when the Tigers' star was virtually ever-present, Williams played just five games due to his own injuries. Due to their constant time on the sidelines, the duo have also only played together once for the Kiwis in the 2006 Anzac Test.

Meanwhile, the Warriors will take on Penrith in a pre-season trial at Waikato Stadium on February 16. The match will pitch former coach Ivan Cleary against new coach (and former Penrith coach) Matthew Elliott.

It will be Elliott's first "home" match and the only trial the Warriors will play in the North Island ahead of next year's NRL campaign. Apart from the locally-produced Rapira brothers being in line to play, the Hamilton trial could also mark debut outings for new Warriors signings Dane Nielsen and Todd Lowrie, who are joining the club after their NRL premiership success with Melbourne.

Halfback Thomas Leuluai could be in contention for his first appearance for the club in more than eight years, the 2003-2004 Vodafone Warrior returning home after so much success with Wigan in the English Super League.

Penrith could field former Warriors Lewis Brown and Jeremy Latimore.

- Herald on Sunday

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