League: Marshall exit averts World Cup dilemma

By Michael Brown

The Kiwis selectors have a few difficult decisions ahead of them as they settle on their World Cup squad but they might be saved from having to make one of the hardest calls with Benji Marshall's switch to rugby.

Marshall was unveiled today as a Blues player for the next two seasons and, while that doesn't necessarily rule him out of World Cup contention, it might provide the convenient excuse for the Kiwis selectors to leave him out of the 24-man squad.

His form over the past two years doesn't warrant inclusion. He is behind Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai in the pecking order in the halves and there is no room for sentiment when a World Cup needs to be defended.

He has been ordinary for his Wests Tigers of late, he was benched in round 10 and speculation mounted this week he would be dropped for the rest of the season, and was poor in his last two outings for the Kiwis.

Coach Stephen Kearney recognised this, replacing him as Kiwis skipper with Simon Mannering, and there were no guarantees he would have been selected for this year's Anzac test - a foot injury ruled him out.

Marshall said recently he was keen to play at the World Cup to round out his league career but even he knows he's off colour.

"I am a proud Kiwi and won the last World Cup and would love to do it again," he said. "I am probably not playing well enough at the moment to get in the team, but if I can find form over the next few games, and the rules permit, then hopefully I am allowed to play."

It's difficult to imagine the international federation would block Marshall's inclusion in the Kiwis side, even though he has signed to play rugby, because of his pulling power, in the same way Sonny Bill Williams won't be excluded even though he's yet to sign a new deal for 2014.

Only an injury to Foran, Johnson, Leuluai or hooker Issac Luke would put Marshall in the frame but, even then, the selectors might opt to reshuffle their squad and plump for Williams at five-eighth or hand Elijah Taylor time at hooker.

It is a sad scenario for a wonderful player who not only changed the game but also came back from a series of major injuries. Marshall won an NRL title with Wests in 2005, played a leading hand in New Zealand's World Cup triumph in 2008 and in 2010 was the international player of the year.

But the game seems to have left him behind. There's little place any more for players who run laterally, with defences more organised and defensive line speeds quicker.

Marshall is still one of the faces of league, which is why he featured in a World Cup promotional poster in the UK that, rather unfortunately, posed the question, "will you be there?" The answer, it's becoming clear, is no.

- APNZ

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