It's strange to talk about Benji Marshall as a rugby league old man because the way he played was always so vibrant, exuberant and fast.

He was always fast, everything was fast. He started fast, he got injured fast, he came back fast, he went down fast and he slowed down fast. He's only 31, but it looks as though his NRL career is over.

You might hear that someone is the next Darren Lockyer or the next Greg Inglis, but when Benji Marshall came along there was none of that because there had never been anyone like him before.

There was never any fear with Benji, not with the ball in hands, because with the ball in his hands he owned the world and everything in it. He's often said that he never knew what he was going to do until he did it.


It worked sometimes, then a lot of the time, then some of the time, then hardly ever at all.

When it did work it made him exhilarating and unstoppable in a way few players ever can be.

First, it was the step because he could always run. He was a skinny 17-year old with a bad haircut and shoulders like a brown snake but he could run and step like he was blowing in the wind.

Brad Fittler was the first modern player to have a signature sidestep, an iconic move that everyone knew was coming but few could stop but Marshall could replicate Fittler's trademark left foot step off both feet without losing speed.

Then he added things. Flick passes, no look passes, then no look flick passes. When he flicked his famous pass to Pat Richards in the 2005 decider it was like seeing something from another planet.

He was never a natural kicker, but he taught himself to be. For a time, his curling grubber was deadly, he could spiral a bomb into orbit and he could bang over field goals from the carpark.

Defence was never his strength and his shoulders nearly killed him before he began but he learned and improved until he was as solid as he needed to be.

He peaked twice, the first time when he was just 20. To see the film now he looks shockingly small. The audacious passes are there sometimes but he was always a runner first, because he was always fast. He ran people ragged. One day at Shark Park he destroyed Cronulla with his shot gun of a sidestep, ripping their hearts out with a smile on his face. His 22 line breaks from that season remain a career high.

Then he went away because of the shoulder and Scott Prince, who was made to play with Marshall just as Marshall was made to play with Prince, went away. Marshall had to become something else, he had to become an organiser, a dictator, a tactician. This never came naturally to him but he made himself into that type of player because he had to do it.

Benji Marshall and Scott Prince celebrate winning the NRL Premiership. Photo / Getty Images
Benji Marshall and Scott Prince celebrate winning the NRL Premiership. Photo / Getty Images

The Tigers never replaced Prince, not really, but it almost didn't matter After battling shoulder and knee injuries for years and almost being swallowed up by his own fearlessness with ball in hand, Marshall enjoyed his second peak from 2008 to 2011 and it was every bit of his first.

The second version of Marshall could still run, because he could always run, but his ball playing was far more polished. He recorded 117 try assists in those four seasons to go with 123 line break assists. He finished fourth in Dally M voting in 2010 and second in 2011.

He grew into his own on the international stage and it was there that he produced some of his greatest performances. He was a key contributor to the 2008 World Cup victory and in 2010 he played perhaps the finest game of his life, setting up two tries in the final stages to steal the Four Nations final.

Marshall took the Tigers to the brink of a second title in 2010 and 2011. In 2010 they came so close to winning the whole damn thing and he had his best individual season since 2005. Tim Sheens is rugby league's most unorthodox great coach and he Frankensteined a heap of parts into the most unusual contender in some time.

The halfbacks changed constantly, as did the fullbacks, but they were irrepressible because of Farah and Marshall. In Marshall, Sheens had a unique weapon and in Sheens, Marshall had a coach who would fully embrace his style of play.

Benji always had errors in him (he led the league in errors from 2010 to 2012 and again in 2015) but they didn't matter because when he got the ball the next time the last error didn't matter because he had the ball and when he had the ball the world was his.

That is to say, the errors didn't matter until they did. He began to change, as all players do.

It wasn't enough for him and Farah to do the job anymore. Pieces of the Tigers began to fall away, like Chris Lawrence, then an arrow straight centre with incredible speed and Benji's favourite hole runner, hurt his hip and was never the same.

Tim Moltzen could have filled the Tigers gap at fullback or halfback but in the end was moved too much and became neither, before knee injuries ruined him.

A falling out at the Tigers saw him leave just as Luke Brooks, the halfback he'd been waiting for, became a first grader. They never played in the halves together.

Benji Marshall during his Super Rugby stint with the Blues. Photo / Getty Images
Benji Marshall during his Super Rugby stint with the Blues. Photo / Getty Images

He tried rugby, but he couldn't do it. He wasn't fast, not like he used to be. He'd reinvented himself many times and added so much but now he was an older dog and there's a reason you always hear the line about old dogs and new tricks.

The Dragons were one last chance. Red V Benji is a different animal to Tiger Benji. Red V Benji can still do the things, but his mind plays tricks on him. The ball doesn't fly from his hands anymore, he doesn't have the crack sidestep and he tries to will himself to do it, but he can't be fast anymore.

His brittle hamstrings, that served him so well, have seen to that. He was still serviceable, leading the club in try assists last season, earning equal runner up status in the Dally M and playing a key role in getting them to the playoffs, but this season the years and the surgeries have done what few players ever could and managed to slow him right down.

Despite the miles under his belt and the eulogising that will happen, Benji is still only 31 - two years younger than Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston.

He wants to play on and to his credit he's accepted that the Dragons want to move on with unfailing grace, but its hard to see him in the NRL next year. If he does retire, a TV career beckons.

Benji Marshall was the first of his kind and there's pieces of him in Shaun Johnson and Te Maire Martin and Anthony Milford and Blake Austin, but his long day in the sun is over.

He can't be fast anymore.