Benji Marshall. Hero. Gentleman. Good guy
On school visits, Benji Marshall has a fun and disarming way of introducing himself. He says “my name is Benjamin Quentin Marshall” as the kids look on with bemusement. Marshall will no doubt introduce himself with similar formality, minus the cheeky grin, when he fronts court on assault charges on April 20. But regardless of what happens that day, I’d still invite him to my kids’ school.
Marshall, who launched the 2011 NRL season last week, was allegedly racially taunted in the most vulgar possible way on Saturday night. This, after he’d MC’d a charity function for the Children’s Cancer Institute which raised $244,000, then stayed out in town for a few drinks, and a fateful 3am burger, which all made sense as he had a room booked in town.
Obviously, The Punch wasn’t there. But let me say this: in five years at Australia’s biggest sporting magazine Alpha, I met numerous topline footballers in all codes. And Benji Marshall was right at the top of the list of the players who struck me as intelligent, wholesome, and thoroughly unlikely to turn feral without the severest provocation.
A disclosure: I am a fan of Marshall’s NRL club, the Wests Tigers. But it wouldn’t matter if I hated the Tigers as much as I hate cowards who taunt people with racial epithets. Because in my opinion, Marshall is not just officially the world’s best rugby league player, he’s the game’s best bloke too.
Rugby league, plagued as it is by serial idiots, needs figures like Benji. His life story is the classic rise from Struggletown to fame which rugby league prides itself on. That, as much as his success, is why the NRL picked him for the season launch.
Brought up by his mother Lydia, who was 15 when she had Benji, the young kid would play football in Whakatane, NZ, with a large group of uncles and cousins who served jointly as father figures but showed him absolutely no mercy whatsoever on the football field. In this tough school, he learned toughness and resolve. He also learned to dance around big dudes with the trademark snappy footwork that would go on to revolutionise the NRL.
If you’re an AFL follower who’s never watched league, or entertained the thought it might be entertaining, click this link from 2005. Or this supremely famous and decisive moment from the 2005 Grand final. Now try this cracker from 2009. Or this, to the Penbo/Ant corner of Leichhardt. Yes, even the editor-in-chief of this website David Penberthy, an avowed Adelaide Crows fan, has travelled to worship at the altar of Benji.
None of which, I say again, is to prejudge Marshall for what happened on Saturday night. But it’s to paint a picture of man who plays the game of football as cleanly and exuberantly as I believe he plays the game of life. A man whom I believe would only lash out under extreme circumstances.
Twice before, in 2006 and then in 2008, Marshall was involved in incidents in Sydney nightclubs. Both times, the strong suggestion is that he was “baited”. Again, details are lacking from the nights in question, but in general, the formula can be simple enough.
Deliberately spill a footy player’s drink, or spill your own and accuse the player of having done it, shove a little, push a little, and see what happens. Who knows? The player may bite, and whammo! You’ve got incriminating camera phone footage you can sell.
On those occasions, Marshall did his best to get out of harm’s way. But whatever happened on Saturday night seemingly pushed him to do the opposite
Like all people, Marshall has a breaking point. Funnily enough, I saw it early last year at the media conference when he announced his long term deal to stay with the Tigers until 2015.
A young female reporter asked Benji if he thought he a five year deal was a risk for the club given his recurring injury problems. Marshall had indeed had numerous shoulder operations back in 2006 and ’07. But he’d been on the paddock for almost the entirety of the previous two seasons (and would go on to play every match in 2010), and the question visibly angered him. He didn’t lash out verbally, but clearly, he’d reached the end of his patience.
People who live almost their entire lives in the spotlight have a right to reach the point where they switch off the charm. Whether they have the right to start swinging is, as mentioned several times, a matter for the judicial system.
As this story goes to print, the Tigers are submitting a report to the NRL on this weekend’s incident. At the very least, you’d hope the game’s ruling body clears him to play his club’s first game this Monday night. After all, the bloke who’s just recorded his 3rd DUI has got the green light.
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