Benji Marshall must watch Chris Noakes and learn
February 21, 2014
The Blues cannot afford for Benji Marshall to be a "long-term project" © Getty Images
What I love about Super Rugby every year when it starts is wondering who we are all going to be talking about in three or four months. Every year, some new player, some new face, gets thrown out there in the mix, a name we hadn't heard of who is in line for All Blacks selection. That's the beauty of it. You see the ITM Cup and players you haven't heard of, but you never really know how good they are until they are exposed to Super Rugby. That's the exciting part.
Then there's the second-year syndrome where players who played really well in their first year, can they deliver again in their second year? Then there's the young All Blacks, your Steven Luatuas and Charles Piutaus and how they step up.
Real All Blacks are a level above at Super level. We saw Piutau grow into the All Blacks jersey on the end-of-year tour last season to show how good he can be. He's back at a level where he is really comfortable, and he can dominate, so I am really keen to see him go this year.
The other big question is: how will Benji Marshall shape up for the Blues?
I've heard coach Sir John Kirwan describe Marshall as a long-term project, but you can't really say he is a "long-term project" at his age (28). You buy him firstly to get bums on seats, and that was one of the reasons they got him; but, certainly, he needs to deliver. You can't afford to wait two or three years for it to happen. And even if it is "long-term" within a season, Super Rugby is not that long. If you lose a couple of games at the outset, you are battling and it is a real struggle to be there at the end. The teams who get off to a good start are usually there or thereabouts at the end of it.
The Blues will be looking to introduce Marshall slowly, off the bench, to see how he goes. But if he is going to be at 10, he has got to control the ship, he has got to understand it is not always taking the ball to the line or playing the running game. You've got to play the tactical game, and read the game for what is needed at the time.
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Driving the team around the field is pretty important, and Chris Noakes did a great job of that when he played for the Blues last year. And that is what Marshall has to do. He has to watch Noakes and learn. He has come a long way but is it far enough? He will have had to watch a lot of rugby, whether replays to watch how Dan Carter or Aaron Cruden, or whoever it is, plays, and how the game works. There have probably been a lot of classroom sessions with the likes of John Kirwan and Graham Henry.
Again, it's one thing to be in the classroom talking about it; but when the bullets are flying, it is a question of how he is going to react. That's the interesting prospect, and that's what we are all dying to see.
I am expecting more from the Blues this season.
They've got some superstars with the likes of Marshall and Jerome Kaino, while some of the young players that are coming through are a year older and developing nicely so they should go well.
Experience is what is needed at Super Rugby level. They've got the foundation with Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina and Keven Mealamu in the front-row. Lock is going to be an issue for them, and they need Tom Donnelly to step up even though there are a couple of good young prospects. But certainly in the loose forwards, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua and Kaino will match anybody and certainly out-physical anybody. And if you get that pack operating in all areas, there is a great backline. Second five-eighths Ma'a Nonu is going to be interesting, as he's always been in Super teams that haven't delivered, but overall the key for the Blues is that No.10.
We've said that every year since Carlos Spencer moved on, but whoever steps up and takes that role on for the Blues will determine the season for them. Whether it's Noakes, Baden Kerr or Marshall, someone has to provide the guidance.
Kirwan, meanwhile, makes all the right noises off the field. He wears his heart on his sleeve, but the important thing for him is to build the culture. He has got some very good coaches in his team. There's no shortage of technical knowledge and understanding of the game and hands-on ability.
JK's role is being the centre, or the leader of the ship. If he can get that management team working together with buy-in from the players, then the talent is there to succeed. So it is not so much as how Kirwan works as a coach, but how he manages, and how he gets the best out of his players. It's about the environment he creates, and whether the players want to play for the Blues and for John Kirwan, because this is his era. He is an incredibly honest man and he wants success.
As for the other franchises, the two-time defending champions, the Chiefs, are a good side and I think they will be there at the end. The Hurricanes backline named for the weekend is star-studded, so you have to expect a bit more this year. The Crusaders will be the Crusaders and be there at the end, as they always are. And while we will all be expecting much more from the Highlanders, they can't do much worse than they did last year.
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