Rugby: Benji Marshall Likely to Switch Codes—Is He the Next Great Convert?

Jeff CheshireAnalyst IIJuly 15, 2013

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 11:  Benji Marshall of the Tigers controls the ball with one hand during the round one NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Wests Tigers at Hunter Stadium on March 11, 2013 in Newcastle, Australia.  (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)
Tony Feder/Getty Images

One of rugby league's biggest stars appears set to give the game away at the conclusion of the 2013 season, as reported by TVNZ. Benji Marshall has reportedly asked to leave the Wests Tigers, and a switch to rugby union seems likely.

Marshall has said numerous times that he would never play for another NRL club, having developed strong loyalty towards the Tigers after playing 11 years with the club. Essentially this means should Marshall want to continue to play top-level sport, he would have to look for a new game, particularly if he wants to remain in Australia or New Zealand.

He has been linked with the Blues Super 15 franchise. TVNZ reported he would join the John Kirwan-coached team for the 2014 season.

This would be a big move for the rebuilding franchise, which after a disastrous 2012 performed surprisingly well in 2013. In the same article, however, it is also mentioned that the Waratahs and Rebels were interested in talking to Marshall's agent.

TVNZ reported that the opportunity to play in the New Zealand Sevens team at the 2016 Olympics was a major attraction for Marshall, given his exceptional skill running in space. Indeed, one would feel he would be a better Sevens player than 15-a-side, given the lower technical skills, tactical nous and higher transferability of skills from rugby league.

To be a successful rugby union player he will no doubt need a transition period, just as we have seen recently from Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau.

He would need to learn a different tactical mindset and develop a knowledge for positional play which is not quite so important in rugby league.

Just to make it clear for those of you who are unaware, rugby union and rugby league are different sports. While outside of Australia, New Zealand and England they are often reported as the same sport, or simply as "rugby," they are in fact very different games. 

The major difference in the rules comes in that in rugby union, there is a contest for the ball, whereas in rugby league there are a set number of tackles when you retain the ball, similar to American football. They are governed by different bodies, require different skill sets, are played with a slightly differently shaped ball and both have a different number of players on the field.

Most important to this situation, if you are good at one, that does not mean you will be good at the other.

In fact, there have been more examples over the years of players being unsuccessful in their switches than of them being successful, especially when switching from league to union. Brad Thorn did well, as did Jason Robinson and Matt Rogers. Sonny Bill Williams was in the end a success, and it seems Israel Folau is going to be successful as well.

But that about does it. Which makes the move a risky one for Marshall, as well as whoever is signing him. 

At 28 years old, his best years are coming to an end and may even be behind him. For the most part of the last decade he has been something of a magician in the NRL, capable of stepping through gaps and delivering miracle balls to put his teammates away that only he could deliver. He was the key player in the Tigers' 2005 Premiership, as well as in New Zealand's 2008 World Cup win.

But over the past two seasons, he has lacked this same spark. Perhaps he just is not the player he was five years ago.

It takes time adjusting to a new sport, especially one as complex as rugby union. How long he takes in this adjustment could determine how well the switch goes, as he really does not have time on his side if it is going to take him multiple seasons.

TVNZ suggested that he may play in the ITM Cup this season, which would be a good platform for him to learn the skills required at the top level—even this though is a reasonable level and will likely take a period of adjustment.

He certainly has the ability to make it at Super 15 level. Whether he could go all the way and play for the All Blacks is another thing, though.

If he were to play first five-eighth, he would be behind the almost irreplaceable Dan Carter and the ever-improving Aaron Cruden. He is not strong enough defensively to play in the midfield, and his playmaking ability would be wasted in the back three.

That said, if he could make the same impact in union as he has in league, you would have to find a place for him.

Sevens may be more his game, at least on the world stage. With far more space to work with and a more basic skill set required, it would be both easier to transfer to and better suited to his playing style.

Indeed, it is not hard to imagine him running rings around opposition defences in sevens. There is no player in sevens that can claim to have the elusiveness of Marshall, with Tomasi Cama perhaps coming the closest.

Whatever happens, it will be an interesting move should a deal be finalised.

If he is successful, it may pave the way for more rugby league players to look to come across to rugby union or sevens in order to chase a Rugby World Cup or an Olympic gold medal. 

Imagine Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson both on the New Zealand Sevens team at Rio 2016. Now that would be a terrifying prospect for anyone who comes up against them.