How the Sacking of Benji Helped Revive Super Rugby’s Blues

Rugby Union—Rugby Championship
May 9, 2014 Updated: May 9, 2014

The sacking of league star Benji Marshall has led to a revival of the Blues, who thrashed the Queensland Reds 44-14 in Auckland on May 2.

Last month Blues coach John Kirwin told Marshall he should play lower grade Rugby union to learn the game, or else return to Rugby league.

Marshall chose to return to league, mutually ending a reported AU$400,000 (HK$2.9 mil) contract.

Marshall said he was taking longer than he expected to adjust to union.

In league, Marshall had more freedom than in union, where straight running is fundamental.

“A lot of those [league] habits are quite lateral,” Marshall said. “Rugby [union] you have to be square. I was finding that quite difficult, especially at 10 [fly-half].”

While the Australian media saw Marshall’s sacking as a humiliating failure, Marshall disagreed.

“I’m happy with what I got out of being with the Blues,” Marshall said. “Obviously it didn’t work out on the field …”

He said he had become jaded playing league for the Wests Tigers, the club the 29-year-old joined as a 17-year-old.

His stint with the Blues had reignited his passion for playing: “Not only did I find myself again, but I found hunger [for playing]”.

Marshall had only eight games for the blues, as a reserve. So his impact on the side was minimal.

Yet the struggling Blues looked as good as any side last Friday when they thrashed the Reds.

Marshall’s sacking would have taught his Blues team-mates something they already knew: if you play badly you will be dropped and possibly sacked.

But, as happens, familiarity can breed complacency, if not contempt.

The Blues players now have direct proof that even a star can be sacked. Further, coach Kirwin will sack even a well-liked star such as Marshall, who had been given little time to prove himself.

To put Marshall’s rugby foray into perspective, two successful converts took more than a season to adjust to union.

Respected All Black lock Brad Thorn struggled to adjust to union, while playing for the Crusaders.

When Graham Henry began coaching the All Blacks in 2004, he had no place in the national side for Thorn, who then returned to league with the Brisbane Broncos, playing another 70 games – he had already played 130 games for the Broncos.

On returning to rugby, he became a mainstay of the All Blacks.

So too league star Sonny Bill Williams, whose freakish talents were honed playing league with the Bulldogs in Sydney.

Despite a two-year stint playing rugby for Toulon, Williams struggled to make a mark in NZ rugby. He eventually made the All Blacks, but as a reserve.

In 2012 he moved from the Crusaders to the Chiefs. Under backs coach Wayne Smith he began to dominate, as he had in league. The Chiefs won the Super title – and Williams became an almost-automatic selection for the All Blacks.

Williams returned to league with the Sydney Roosters in 2013, winning a premiership. He will return to the Chiefs next year, in time for the Rugby World Cup.

When he returns, Williams will contest the All Black inside-centre spot.

His competition will be Blues centre and long-standing All Black Ma’a Nonu, who was outstanding against the Reds, playing a crucial role in three of their four tries.

Other results
Meanwhile, the inconsistent Waratahs played well to beat the improving Hurricanes 39-30 in Sydney.

In Christchurch, the slow-starting Crusaders beat the Brumbies 40-20. Iconic captain Richie McCaw made a dominating return after breaking his thumb in round two.

The Durban Sharks dominate the table despite struggling to beat the lowly Rebels 16-22 in Melbourne.

After 12 rounds, only 10 competition points separate the top 10 sides in the Super 15, so it’s tough at the top.

The powerful sides the Reds and the Stormers are placed thirteenth and fourteenth respectively, so the competition will be tough at the bottom as well.

Next matches
On Friday (May 9) the improving Blues play the Chiefs in New Plymouth, in a crucial game for both sides.

The Hurricanes have an easier game against the Rebels—but the Rebels almost beat the table-topping Sharks.

The Reds can ruin the run by the Crusaders, who will play for their sixth straight win. The Reds beat the Crusaders to win the 2011 Super title.

The Brumbies return home to Canberra, where they are capable of beating the table-topping Sharks in the match of the round.