Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Marshall poised for fullback role

Competition for pivotal Blues' No10 jersey as Noakes overcomes potential career threatening injury.

Former league player Benji Marshall will return to Sydney when the Blues face the Waratahs in February. Photo / Dean Purcell
Former league player Benji Marshall will return to Sydney when the Blues face the Waratahs in February. Photo / Dean Purcell

Benji Marshall is in line to make a high-profile return to Sydney for the Blues' pre-season game against the Waratahs in February, and Chris Noakes, one of his teammates contesting the No10 jersey, hopes the league convert is a hit at fullback.

Only a few months ago, Noakes was wondering if he would be playing next season, much less vying for a place with the former Wests Tigers and Kiwis player. A neck prolapse suffered in the gym while training for the Blues early this season required surgery - two of Noakes' vertebrae were fused in August - yet the initial diagnosis suggested it was a shoulder problem so he played on. The potential for serious injury hardly bears thinking about.

Now, though, he is almost ready to clear the final hurdle in his recovery. His surgeon is extremely positive and the results of yesterday's CT scan will hopefully confirm that on Friday.

The injury was a disappointing end to the 28-year-old's season after an extremely promising start, the former Highlanders player surprising many with his poise and ability.

Noakes is one of three with serious claims to the Blues' No10 jersey, with another, 19-year-old Simon Hickey, also ready to mount a challenge. Apart from Marshall, there is Baden Kerr, who played well for Counties-Manukau during their Ranfurly Shield exploits this season.

Noakes and Kerr were the front-runners in a tough mid-afternoon outdoor conditioning session at the Blues' Unitec HQ yesterday, with Marshall spending the latter part of it on a rowing machine.

Chris Noakes. Photo / Richard Robinson
Chris Noakes. Photo / Richard Robinson

If the former Kiwis captain wanted a low-key start to rugby, he is unlikely to get it, the Blues' pre-season fixture list pitting them against the Waratahs at Sydney's Allianz Stadium on February 7. A week earlier they play the Hurricanes in Masterton, with the Chiefs in Rotorua their third fixture.

Noakes admitted he admired Marshall's ability as a league player, but said he wanted to keep him at fullback. It is widely believed the 28-year-old Marshall will begin there before moving to first-five.

"I've loved watching league over the years and certainly as he's a Kiwi, I've always followed him and I guess marvelled at the way he plays," Noakes said. "If he can replicate that sort of stuff in our game it's going to be pretty good for us. He's very level-headed and a smart rugby league player, obviously, so his ability to pick up the game plan and to control games - he should be able to make a pretty good fist of it wherever he ends up. I'd prefer him to be at 15, no doubt, but he could play 10 pretty easily with the skills that he has.

"My first thing is sorting my neck and to make sure I'm in the mix. But certainly my goal is to earn that 10 jersey again. My form faded [this year] so I'd like to have a higher level of consistency. If I can replicate that sort of form [at the start], I'd like to think I'd get picked again."

Noakes, who was sidelined for Bay of Plenty's ITM Cup season, said the injury's severity made him question his future. "I had to have a pretty big think about whether to carry on playing, because you don't play around with your neck."

Blues' pre-season
*v Hurricanes, Memorial Park, Masterton, Saturday, February 1
*v Waratahs, Allianz Stadium, Sydney, Friday, February 7
*v Chiefs, Rotorua International Stadium, Friday, February 14

- APNZ

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