By David Beck
I've said before in this column that Whakatāne's finest Benji Marshall is the reason I fell in love with rugby league. The no-look passes, the sidesteps, that flick pass in the 2005 NRL grand final - at the peak of his powers he had it all.
However, there were tough times.
In 2013, he was the incumbent Kiwis captain but was dropped from the squad by coach Stephen Kearney. Marshall's confidence took a hit and he struggled for form with the Wests Tigers. They were on a losing streak and he was dropped to the bench.
In July that year, Marshall left the Tigers to pursue a career in rugby with the Blues. He left the Tigers as the club's top try and points scorer. But the rugby experiment was a disaster.
He returned to the NRL in 2014 and, after time with the Dragons and Broncos, rejoined the Tigers last year. His game is not as flamboyant or fast-paced as it once was but his experience and ability to control a game have seen him reignite his career.
When you consider the peaks and troughs, it is no surprise emotions were high when Marshall made his first appearance for the Kiwis since 2012 at the weekend, against Tonga in Auckland.
He probably thought he would never represent his country again.
It is not rare to see players a little tearful during their national anthem but on Saturday, Marshall spent the entire anthem sobbing, he was overwhelmed with emotion. It tugged at the heart strings.
View this post on Instagram
I am soooo humbled at this opportunity to represent my country again ! I missed it. The emotion I was feeling was so overwhelming and it just all came out . But I’m proud of that. Was amazing having my family all@there especially @zoebmarshall and my son Fox stoked he got to see his dad in the black and white. I had the best week with a great crew of lads that went out and did the mahi tonight( shot brothers) . I just wanna say thank you to everybody for all the support this week in embracing me back in the kiwi team . Also thanks to the MMT fans for the passion and making international footy great again. Special mention to @britonnikora and @jahromehughes on making their debut . Proud as boys #kiwi717
A post shared by Benji Marshall (@benji6marshall) on
Veteran half Benji Marshall makes his return to the @NZRL_Kiwis fold after a 7 year hiatus in what will be his 28th test for the #Kiwis.— NZ Warriors Stats (@NZWarriorsStats) June 21, 2019
32 - The #Kiwis have played 32 tests since Marshall last appeared in the black jersey. #KiwisvTonga
It was a truly powerful moment and inspiring to see someone who clearly has so much pride in representing their country. A 34-14 win for the Kiwis was a nice bonus, too.
Speaking of international league, the representative round is a fantastic idea. Rather than hold the three State of Origin matches all on Wednesdays, the second game is held on a Sunday following a full weekend of representative matches.
It started with the women's State of Origin on Friday before a crowd of 10,515 at North Sydney Oval.
On Saturday, the Kiwis played Tonga, Fiji played Lebanon and Samoa played Papua New Guinea. On Sunday, New South Wales played Queensland in State of Origin game two in Perth.
I don't like the eligibility laws in league. I don't think you should be able to play for the Kiwis one year and Tonga the next.
However, I have to admit, the fact that out and out superstars such as Jason Taumalolo and Martin Taupau have joined Tonga and Samoa respectively has gone a long way towards improving the competition at international level. The passion these sides play with is unparalleled and great to watch.
The 2021 Rugby League World Cup could be the most competitive yet.
I also loved seeing the Tongan fans in the crowd at Mount Smart Stadium. It was a sea of red - the enthusiasm was such that it felt like a Tongan home game and I think Kiwi sports fans could learn a lot from it.
While globally we are seen as a pretty happy-go-lucky bunch, when it comes to sport we can be pretty negative. I think the success of the All Blacks has made us far too sensitive to defeat. If one of our national sides shows signs of impending failure, we jump ship faster than a passenger on the Titanic.
The Tongans' support for their side is vocal and unwavering - you can't help but want to see more of it.