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

Michael Burgess: Benji, fastest feet in west, leaves a dazzling legacy

Benji Marshall celebrates victory over Australia. Photo / Photosport
Benji Marshall celebrates victory over Australia. Photo / Photosport

The end is nigh for Benjamin Quentin Marshall and we may never see another player quite like him.

He had an impact on the NRL that won't being repeated, especially as the competition gets more robotic with each season.

Yesterday, Marshall played his last match for the Dragons, having earlier turned down a 2017 contract extension at Kogarah.

He may yet pick up another deal in Australia - but that looks increasingly unlikely - and he doesn't appear to be a candidate for the Super League, given the work opportunities for him and wife Zoe in Sydney.

So this might be it. He's only 31 - years younger than the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith - but has 14 NRL seasons behind him and has achieved so much.

It's a pity the past few years have blurred his legacy. There was the messy exit from the Tigers, then his disastrous dalliance with the Blues, a case of wrong man, wrong club, wrong time.

And while he hasn't been poor at the Dragons, he has been unable to recapture the magic in a struggling team with a rotating cast of coaches.

Marshall was the kid from Whakatane who, via Keebra Park High School, had an astonishing impact on the NRL. Fans had seen great sidesteps before - Brett Papworth, Michael O'Connor and Brad Fittler - but nothing like Benji's dancing feet and all his other tricks.

He was soon christened the twinkle toes of league, and inspired the Tiger cubs to the 2005 premiership in his first full season.

His numbers were remarkable: 15 tries, 12 try assists, 22 line breaks, 19 line break assists and more than 100 running metres per game - from five-eighth.

The 20-year-old also created a memorable grand final try, with his searing 50m break, then no-look flick pass to Pat Richards - "who tries that, who does that in a grand final?" was commentator Paul Vautin's incredulous response.

The Tigers never again recaptured those heights, though they probably should have. Marshall was at his creative peak in 2010 and 2011, with a total of 25 tries and a staggering 52 try assists.

It always felt like the Tigers would feature again on grand final day but they never quite made it, partly due to two freakish acts of play.

In 2010, the Tigers were 30 seconds away from making the preliminary final at the first attempt, leading 15-14 against the Roosters. But they gave up a tighthead scrum feed, then Braith Anasta kicked a 35m drop goal from near the sideline to take the game to golden point and the Roosters won in the 100th minute. That defeat gave them a much tougher playoff path and though the Tigers went on to make the preliminary final, they lost 13-12 to eventual premiers the Dragons.

The following year saw Krisnan Inu's miracle try, when the West Sydney club had again all but sealed a spot in the preliminary finals.

Marshall had a profound impact on league in New Zealand. He turned a whole of generation of youngsters on to the game - everybody wanted to be like Benji - and was fiercely loyal to the black and white V.

Few Kiwis fans will forget the way he turned the 2010 Four Nations final, creating two tries in the last nine minutes, nor his role in the 2008 World Cup triumph.

And remember his response to James Tamou's defection in 2012, at a time when the Kiwis had endured a long winless streak against the Kangaroos?

"Maybe the thought of playing State of Origin got to him," said Marshall. "That money side of things might be luring him. If that's where his heart is, good luck to him. We don't want him."

Marshall played 27 tests between 2005 and 2012, captaining the Kiwis in his last four years. But in the end, he took on too much: skipper, main playmaker and goalkicker, as well as focal point and superstar, and it affected his play at international level.

Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney replaced him as captain in 2013, and he hasn't represented his country since, due to his rugby sojourn and the emergence of younger options.

But that shouldn't detract from his status as one of New Zealand league's all-time greats.

- NZ Herald

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

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday. He was named the 2013 New Zealand football writer of the year and was a finalist in the Sports Reporter of the year at the 2014 Canon Media Awards.

Read more by Michael Burgess

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