Head to head: DCE v Marshall
He’s back, but is it the Benji of old or an old Benji? Now 29, Marshall’s accolades –including the 2010 Golden Boot and 2011 Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year – must seem like distant memories as he slowly but surely finds his feet in the NRL.
Compared with 2013 at Wests, he is averaging more receives, metres, tackle breaks, try assists, line break assists and tackles. And the improvement between his Dragons debut in round 10 and his most recent match in round 17 tells a tale of its own: eight more receives, eight more tackles, 26 more metres, and three fewer errors. He also chalked up one line break assist, one try assist and three tackle breaks in that game, showing ‘Benji magic’ still has opponents spellbound.
The combination and stability with Gareth Widdop, his scrumbase partner in all seven games, is a big part of the Dragons' revival. They’ve split kicking duties down the middle, with Marshall averaging 9 (277m) and Widdop 9.5 (260m) per game, which has allowed the former Kiwi international to focus on playmaking.
This is in stark contrast to last season where he was often burdened with the majority of kicking, had three halves partners and played in four positions. Not surprisingly the Tigers ran 15th.
It’s a far cry from 2005 when he won the competition as the league’s entertainment machine, a position now held by Daly Cherry-Evans, whose feature-length highlight reel grows weekly. His jaw-dropping talent was on display last round, with Messi-esque dribbling skills finishing off an exquisite team move. The same fancy footwork was showcased against the Dogs in round 13 as he dummied, ran and kicked twice for himself before handing off to Steve Matai. And who could forget his swift line break and genius grubber to setup Cameron Smith in the Origin decider?
Beyond this, his key stats are similar to last season’s. But with a full Origin series under the belt, including his first start at halfback, it will be interesting to see whether the rep season takes its toll or propels him to greater heights.
There’s plenty of motivation as these likeable superstars face-off on Monday night. Marshall attempts to increase his lowly 36% win rate against Manly and keep St George Illawarra in touch with the eight, while Cherry-Evans battles to hold his side’s position at the NRL summit as he teaches the old stager a trick or two.