Michael Burgess

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

NRL: Kiwis part of star's downfall

It's perhaps fitting that the Warriors spoiled Benji Marshall's farewell at Leichhardt last Friday night, as they were the club that probably precipitated his downward spiral in form more than any other.

It could be argued that Marshall - and even the Tiger's as a franchise - have never truly recovered from the calamitous events of September 16, 2011, when the underdog Warriors stunned the home side to knock them out of the finals.

On this side of the Tasman we were swept up in unexpected euphoria when Krisnan Inu scored his miracle try but it was a truly horrible Tiger's defeat. The Tigers were the form team coming into the finals, after winning eight consecutive games and it felt like 2005 was repeating itself.

Marshall's men dispatched the Dragons (who were defending premiers) in the first week of the finals, while the Warriors were smashed 40-10 in Brisbane. It was a simple scenario; dispose of the Warriors and the Tigers would be favourites to topple the Storm, before a probable grand final against Manly, who they had beaten in the regular season.

The Tigers dominated the first half and led 18-6 just after halftime. The Warriors rallied but the Tigers still looked safe, on attack with three minutes on the clock and ahead 20-18. But Marshall dallied on the fifth tackle and failed to get a kick away, caught 40m from the Warriors line.

The visitors had one more chance and rumbled forward. Shaun Johnson's last tackle bomb created havoc and Inu showed the poise of an assassin to delicately gather the ball and score, with bodies flailing all around him. It was a bitter pill for Marshall who had enjoyed a spectacular season; he was top pointscorer in the NRL (including 13 tries), created more line breaks than anyone else and had 24 try assists.

The Tigers wouldn't be the same again. They made a series of poor recruitment decisions - including selling half their forward pack to pay for Adam Blair - and Marshall must have sensed the team was on the wane.

Put in context that 2011 defeat must have seemed like the final straw. Remember the Tigers (and Marshall) had suffered a similarly bitter exit in 2010. After missing the playoffs from 2006-2009, the swagger returned in 2010. They finished third in the regular season and were one of the competition favourites. In the first qualifying final they led the Roosters until the 80th minute, before one of the most improbable sequence of events seen in an NRL playoff game.

With just 32 seconds on the clock, the Tigers just had to play out time. But they lost a scrum against the feed - yes, you read right - and two plays later Braith Anasta snapped a one-in-a-million angled drop goal, from 40 metres out and closer to the side line than the middle of the field. Golden point followed but the Tigers were mentally shot and lost to Shaun Kenny Dowall's long range intercept try.

Instead of being on easy street - the Roosters would face the faltering Panthers then the Titans - the loss consigned the Tigers to a tough road. They took out a thriller in Canberra (26-24) before being squeezed out by Wayne Bennett's Dragons (13-12) who went on to take the title.

Marshall had enjoyed his most productive NRL season - leading most of the statistical categories - and was later recognised as the best player in the world but it was of little consolation.

Last Friday night Marshall gave a fractured performance. He started well, making the first try with a typical pinpoint pass and orchestrating most of the Tigers' attack but his influence gradually faded. One fifth tackle kick belonged in rugby - it cleared the sideline on the full by 30 metres as it shanked off his boot - and on other occasions passes just missed their mark.

In one sense it seems that the game has caught up with Marshall as defensive patterns have evolved, making his cross field darts less effective. But his loyalty to the Tigers has also cost him; he has rarely played behind a dominant forward pack in the last few years and often had much inexperience outside him. He deserves a few more magic moments before his final bow - probably against the Cowboys in round 26 - but it remains to be seen how influencial he will be in his final seven NRL games.

"The decision has been made now so I have to move on," Marshall said after Friday's game. "It was disappointing not to win here tonight but ball control let us down. But it looks like I'll be doing a [Darren] Lockyer and having a farewell every week."

- Herald on Sunday

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