The Benji Marshall problem
April 23, 2014
Benji Marshall played only 212 minutes in eight matches for the Blues before calling it quits © Getty Images
In the wake of the Benji Marshall interlude with the Blues there is a lot of head scratching over what it was all about.
Where was the big picture? Because the long-term picture is what we all talk about in these things. We're a couple of months into the season, still in April and it is all over.
What the Marshall episode does is leave the door wide open for criticism in the way it has been handled, and rightfully so.
If you make that mistake in business you go bankrupt. You can't fork out and go and get the best and turn it into something it isn't
You can't go from the top level in one sport to the top in another just like that. Super rugby, you don't get much higher than that. You're talking about the cream of the cream.
All the potential in the world doesn't stack up if you can't deliver the goods. Fifteens is a different game. Many people have made the comparison with Brad Thorn and Sonny Bill Williams but the key component when you talk about them is that you can't replace size and speed. Both of them are big units so if they make a mistake they can correct it with their physicality.
Benji Marshall didn't have that advantage. He's an elusive player but doesn't have the bag of tricks or the technical knowledge and that takes time to get. If he gets into strife, his size is not going to get him out of trouble.
And to have him play ITM Cup? Who were they going to put him with? You look at Auckland, was Simon Hickey going to sit on the bench for Benji Marshall? Where's the future in that?
For me the sad thing about this whole situation at the Blues is that Charles Piutau is one of the best fullbacks in the world at the moment. And if you look at all the other positions in the Blues backline, you've got Ma'a Nonu in the mid-field with Jackson Willison and Francis Saili. There's a logjam there.
It's not as if Benji Marshall came in and there was a clear void where they could say, 'That's your position, you're going to fill that one'. What happened was he came in to a situation where they had no idea where they were going to play him and the idea they would fit him in somewhere. But there was no room.
Dowd believes signing Marshall created a roadblock for young talent in the Blues © Getty Images
The sad thing for me is that you get a Lolagi Visinia or a Tevita Li, the types of players who could be potential superstars facing a roadblock in their progress.
Taking the Piutau case two years ago, when he got a sniff he took his chance and went from strength to strength. But those younger players have had their way blocked and to take Benji Marshall some players had to miss out.
So someone like Malakai Fekitoa picks up his tools and goes and plays for the Highlanders and Hadleigh Parkes goes and plays for the Hurricanes. There was a whole group of players who had stood up in the Blues region who were overlooked.
You have to remember 61 Aucklanders played in the ITM Cup last year. The talent is there but there are road blocks everywhere. So instead of everyone saying 'Auckland are in trouble', they should know there are talented players out there but they are not getting the chance on their home patch.
I'm of the view that recruitment is a specialist area, and this example highlights the merit to be had in that approach. The head coach has a role to play in that, but his coaching team should be involved in coaching only and these specialist recruiters can get out and do their assessments of players for the future.
If we are really and truly going to embrace professionalism then we need to have recruitment departments that have been part of professional sporting franchises in the United States in baseball, basketball and football, as they do in the NRL and the likes.
Their role is to go out looking for players and to ear tag them from young ages.
That is probably the next step that rugby needs to get its head around in New Zealand.
Matt Sexton and Stephen Lancaster started that process at the Crusaders. They looked at the younger players, saw how good they were and herded them into the Crusaders system. He positioned them nicely and those players are coming through. Look at Kieran Read, he's from Pukekohe. Also Dominic Bird and of course the Whitelock Brothers from the Manawatu, were taken down to Christchurch, like many others, and brought through the Crusaders system.
Plugging a gap with a Benji Marshall undermines this conveyor belt of players we have in New Zealand for producing really good rugby players.
Look at the situation with Ihaia West, who is now in the Blues system. He is two years more experienced than Simon Hickey. He was NZ Under-20s first five-eighths, he was one of the top four players to come out of the ITM Cup last year and he hasn't had a crack at Super Rugby.
But in the meantime Simon Hickey who, because he was selected in the Blues wider training group, got promoted when a few people got injured and got his chance and showed just what he can do.
How good could Ihaia West be? I think they should just railroad him straight into the starting XV. If he goes well he should be signed on a three or four-year contract with the Blues. He is someone who is the future.
There's more credence doing that than getting a player like Benji Marshall who is 29 and unproven.
As for their performances the Blues are playing without confidence and they lack some 'hard bastards', the players with the mongrel in them to turn things around. They are all nice guys in the Blues at the moment and that may even filter through to the management. They need someone to be the mongrel, someone who will be respected and listened to and in their recruitment they need to find some hard-edged, tough nuts.
Jerome Kaino is probably the hardest man they have got, but he has been away for two years and you can't expect him to walk in and do everything. When you get into a street fight there are some guys who are naturally out in front, and you get in behind them and let them go about their business. And I don't think the Blues have one of those.
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