It's not easy to find an apt place to begin the Legend of Marty Banks, first-five and reluctant raconteur whose sinuous journey from the coal mines of Reefton to cult-hero provides an endearing link to rugby's less complicated past.

With the familiar mop of hair retaining staunch independence from the scalp that sprouts it, a smile offsetting a busted nose and a heartland backstory, Banks comes across as the last of the great amateurs. It's misleading: his peripatetic rugby life epitomises the modern professional athlete.

From Reefton to Christchurch, Takapuna to Krasnoyarsk, Buller to Nelson, Wellington, Dunedin, Treviso and on to places yet discovered, Banks is crafting one of the more unconventional rugby stories of these corporate times.

"It's not the most structured career to be honest," says Banks with typical understatement.

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On the eve of Banks' departure for Osaka, the latest stop on his rugby world tour, the 28-year-old is ready to pull up a chair and tell some yarns.

He has a few.

The best place to start is Siberia, where Banks was paid once, and only once, by a man carrying a paper bag full of cash.

Krasnoyarsk was, according to master story-teller Anton Chekhov, the most picturesque city in Siberia. Banks wasn't there for the Polaroids.

He was there to play for Krasny Yar, one of the foundation clubs of Russian rugby. It was a spur of the moment decision for the 21-year-old. Like an unwilling two-stroke mower, Banks' career was turning over but hadn't managed to catch.

Banks had just cracked the renowned Canterbury academy system when he contracted glandular fever while gaining work experience at his brother's gym on Auckland's North Shore. He thought working in a gym would give him a chance to add some bulk to a sinewy frame, instead, he lost 8kg and was too sick to return to the academy.

Once recovered, he laced up for Takapuna and put in a call to All Black great Jeff Wilson, then coaching the struggling North Harbour NPC team.

"He made it clear pretty early on that Harbour weren't keen, which was probably fair enough," Banks says.

Professional pathways in New Zealand were becoming more skewed towards youth and Banks felt that as an undiscovered 20-year-old, his chances of making a decent living in New Zealand were gone.

When told there was an opportunity in Siberia, he thought, "Why Not?" Not that he could point to where he was going on a map. He was not even sure how the whole equator thing worked.

"I was at the airport and I Googled to see what the temperature was like. It was 40 degrees and I'd packed all my winter clothes."

Krasnoyarsk had been a "closed" city during the Soviet era and when it was opened to the wonders of the free market those best placed to exploit it were criminals.

"There were unconfirmed links to the team," Banks says conspiratorially. "There were always a couple of mafia guys watching."

Apart from the rugby, which was of dubious standard, Banks was out of his depth. He once gave himself a high-five for managing to buy a pre-made lasagna only to race home and discover he'd bought a box of pasta sheets and no filling.

There was an edge to life in Siberia. The foreigners – there were five on the team – stuck out like sore thumbs.

"Our teammates were really good but the Russian men outside of rugby were not so good. The Russian men didn't want a bar of us."

Banks was told that the Russians feared they were there to steal their women. If it wasn't for the fact the team were "protected beasts" because of those underworld links, things could have got nasty.

"It was crazy. I wasn't looking for trouble, but if that was what you wanted you'd find it really easily."

Travelling to away games on charter flights was an adventure in itself, with no hold in the planes you could throw your bags down and literally lie on the bottom of the plane.

"There was one hostess who had a prick of a job and I had no idea how we were going to make it. It literally felt like the plane was held together by duct tape."

In these moments of discomfort Banks would lie back and think of home and wonder if he was cut out for a globetrotting life.

He wasn't getting paid either. He maxed out his credit card and then borrowed off friends as the promise of a payday stretched out to weeks, then months.

"I didn't get paid until the day before I left and was just delivered a bag of cash. They asked me if I wanted to count it but I said it didn't really matter if it wasn't all there because there wasn't much I could do about it."

Three days before the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, Banks landed safely in Auckland, on a plane where you couldn't see the undercarriage from your seat. He had never been so happy to see the place.

Marty Banks reflects on his
Marty Banks reflects on his "unconventional" rugby career.Photo / Greg Bowker.
W

e took a great leap forward to get to Siberia, but that's okay. Banks' career is defined by improbable plot lines. If you want to go right back to the start you have to go to Reefton, population 1000-and-change.

The Buller region is known for a few things but overcrowding is not one of them.

The Banks family made up a fair chunk of the populace. His parents, Richard and Kathryn, brought forth, in order, Richard Jr, Clinton, Stuart, Tina, Marty and Kylie.

"The family-owned coalmines from the moment dad left school pretty much. Not big ones, small ones to make ends meet and allowed them to be their own bosses. Most of my older brothers joined him. I tagged along but I don't know anything about mining. I drove the dump truck or mucked around on the digger.

"These hands never got much dirt under the fingernails though."

He and Kylie had it easy. That's what his older brothers and sisters tell them anyway. He tends to agree.

Banks was also the ball boy for his brothers. His dad, a prop, was a Buller centurion who lost against the Lions for a combine West Coast-Buller team in 1977. The young Marty would follow dad and his brothers around the rugby fields on a Saturday and down to Greymouth for league on a Sunday.

By the time he was 14, he was sufficiently skilled, although insufficiently sized, to be playing senior rugby for Reefton. He suspects his mother, who had separated from Richard by this time, re-enlisted his dad and brothers to play as his protectors.

"Not many people get to say they played senior rugby alongside their dad who was 40-years older than them. It taught me a lot of lessons, the physicality rather than skills.

"Playing fully grown men when you're 14 is an eye-opener. Westport were full of big Maori fellas and I was mates with a lot of their younger brothers. They would try to give me a hiding."

Banks' life was stuck on fast-forward.

"Our coach owned a pub so I also learned to drink a Speight's far too early."

Here's a Marty Banks fun fact: he signed a Super Rugby contract before he signed an NPC one.

Not so fun fact: of all the rejections he had, the Tasman one hurt the most.

When he returned from Siberia he played for Buller. He was convinced north by Nelsonian Ben Coman.

Banks assumed he had an inside track to the Tasman side.

"Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald called me in twice. The first time they said they were thinking about me."

The second time Banks took along a pen, ready to sign on the dotted line.

"I was thinking, 'Surely they're going to put a contract in front of me?' Instead, they said, 'We're going with two other boys'."

Keane told Banks if he stuck around he'd have him playing Super Rugby in two years, but he was cynical. Here was a guy claiming he had the keys to his career yet he wouldn't pick him in his NPC team.

Banks got ready to move back to Reefton until he took a call from Mike Fraser, coach of Tasman B. It might be the most important chat he ever listened to.

"He talked to me as a person, not a player. He gave me honest advice about the difference between fighting for something rather than taking off every time it didn't pan out."

Banks soon got a chance with Tasman. He was brilliant, setting scoring records and earning a contract with the Hurricanes for 2014.

That didn't go so well.

Marty Banks and Benji Marshall swap notes ahead of the 2014 Super rugby season. It wouldn't work out well for either. Photo / file
Marty Banks and Benji Marshall swap notes ahead of the 2014 Super rugby season. It wouldn't work out well for either. Photo / file

"Mentally and physically I wasn't developed enough to make the step-up quickly. I didn't understand my type of game.

"My last game was against the Highlanders. I was playing fullback and they had a ploy, which was bomb Marty and get the Fijian to come and bully me off the ball. They did it every time. I dropped it probably a dozen times. I've never watched the game and I never will. That was it for the Hurricanes.

"If you're a newbie at that level and don't perform it's pretty tough to find a way back in."

But he did. Not with the Canes but the misfits at the Highlanders.

The Italy chapter was a bit tougher to talk about. Even the smile that framed his recollection of Russia disappears momentarily.

Banks was signed to play for Benetton of Treviso at the conclusion of the 2016 Super Rugby season. He was sealed. He just wasn't delivered.

Things had been going well for Banks at the Highlanders. He played a key role off the bench in the 2015 final, kicking a droppie with five minutes left and stretching a tenuous four-point lead to seven.

A Banks' drop goal against his old team helped seal an epic Super Rugby upset for the Highlanders in 2015.
A Banks' drop goal against his old team helped seal an epic Super Rugby upset for the Highlanders in 2015.

More than that, he'd found a team culture that seemed tailormade for his personality. He'd signed for two years but they wanted him for a third and he was keen to stay. It looked like a classic case of a player getting cold feet when a better offer came along.

"It's something I've never really talked about and a lot of people just think I was trying to skip out of my contract because I didn't want to turn up.

"Nobody knew this, but mum got sick during my second year with the Highlanders. I was trying to stay in New Zealand to be with mum. She got a bit of cancer there."

This was the mum who had done everything for Banks as a kid. Who had recognised he had a talent that needed a bigger stage. Who had paid for him to leave Buller and attend one of professional rugby's ultimate prep schools, Christchurch Boys' High.

"She went out on a limb and invested money in me that she didn't have," he says.

It was a pretty simple equation: he owed her more than he could ever repay, but at least being with her as she began her treatment was a start.

"I didn't want to say it in the media because I didn't want to put mum under any sort of pressure and I didn't really want it to look like I was giving this sob story, but there it is."

Banks called Kieran Crowley, Benetton's coach, and his agent renegotiated a one-year deal and 12 months later he walked away from New Zealand rugby, somewhat reluctantly.

"I never saw myself being able to make the step up. To do that you have to be totally invested and you see the sacrifices the top-level players make and I probably strayed on the wrong side of the sacrifices line at times," he admits.

He was happy about what he'd achieved in New Zealand rugby. From a rocky start, he'd guided Tasman around the park to a win the second-tier Championship. He'd played in two Premiership finals and "if I'd kicked a couple of goals" they would have beaten Taranaki in 2014. He'd won a Super Rugby title in 2015 and been part of a team who had beaten the Lions two years later, getting "one-up on the old man" in the process.

"For a player who was never going to be an All Black, there wasn't a heck of a lot more I could have achieved."

Your career is finite. It's not so much that the glory days are fleeting, though they definitely are, but that your earning days are.

Still not feeling great about leaving his mum, Banks arrived in Treviso feeling worn down and grumpy.

"I felt like I had the flu. I wasn't sleeping, I'd lie awake sweating all night. I'd tell myself to get over it, to accept I was over there and to pull myself into line.

"I debuted against Munster feeling like crap, could barely keep my eyes open. I tried kicking the ball and was going all over the place. I kept playing, feeling like shit. I couldn't work out what was happening with my body. "

Blood tests provided an answer. He had glandular fever, again.

Things improved. Banks improved. He developed increased spatial awareness as he struggled to communicate with his halfback and outsides and "no longer had Ben Smith at the back telling me where to stand".

Benetton wanted him back but the flight was too far from New Zealand for his mum and the money didn't stack up to what was now being offered in Japan by NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.

"In New Zealand, you never played for the money but overseas, whether you choose to admit it or not, it's a huge motivating factor."


What would the 28-year-old Marty Banks say to the 20-year-old Marty if he could get him where he's sitting now – in a pub nursing a quiet beer?

"The 20-year-old Marty Banks was a bit naive," he says. "In Reefton, I was in a small pond and I didn't have to work for too much. Even in life mum and dad put a lot of things on a platter for me and that flowed into my rugby.

"I didn't listen to strong advice from wise coaches. They all told me to work a bit harder towards what I wanted to achieve. Instead, I stood still in the same spot for four years thinking a door will open, a door will open. The door never opens by itself. I got what I deserved.

"I'd give that guy a good clip around the ears."

He'd tell that 20-year-old version of himself that he got a lot wrong but eventually figured it out.

"I've built a bit of resilience. I've had a lot of 'nos'. I've been told, 'Not here, not this time,' more than most. Finally one of the 'nos' turned into a 'yes'. Hopefully, the coaches that gave me an opportunity are happy that they did and that I continue to reward them."

That might be one of the reasons the legend of Marty Banks is so relatable.

He looks like one of us. Every now and then he plays like one of us. But all he wanted was a chance. And he got it. And he mainly took it. And he's carved an unlikely rugby career from a place, Reefton, where economic reality slowly but surely sucks the ambition from its youth.

A career that has some legs left in it. He has signed for three years at the Red Hurricanes, who are based in Osaka (Banks can point to this place on a map). He'll be in his early 30s then and he's eyeing up a piece for his wardrobe.

"I'd love to think I could play another season in New Zealand. I think I'm seven or eight games short of 50 for the Makos and you get a blazer at 50. Because I've hopped around everywhere, I've never been able to achieve a decent milestone like that."

The Legend of Marty Banks has left room for a postscript.

New Zealand rugby player Marty Banks is heading offshore to finish his rugby career. 14 May 2018 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Greg Bowker.
New Zealand rugby player Marty Banks is heading offshore to finish his rugby career. 14 May 2018 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Greg Bowker.