THE misconception with Benji Marshall is that everything he does on a rugby field is off-the-cuff and no-one else knows what he is going to do.
But that is wrong; he works so hard on his game.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up going into coaching because he thinks about the game so much and is really passionate about it; you can see that in the way he plays.Gareth Ellis
I’ve said that Benji’s the greatest player I ever played with and it’s brilliant to now see him – at the age of 34 – back in the New Zealand squad seven years since he last played for the Kiwis.
We played together for four seasons at Wests Tigers in the NRL. He was just brilliant.
Obviously, I knew of him before I went over to Sydney from Leeds in 2009 and I was really looking forward to playing with this genius half-back.
But with the way he played, I also almost had a preconception that he’d be an arrogant, big-headed type who would keep himself to himself.
Yet when I got there he couldn’t have been further from that. He was absolutely brilliant, one of the first guys to make me feel welcome and had a real interest in how I was settling in both on and off the field.
So, when I say who’s the best player I ever played with, that’s not just because of what a player can do with a rugby ball.
It’s also about how they conduct themselves away from the field and it’s probably a reflection of why I said that about Benji just as well as what he did on it. From a playing point of view, he did things – and probably still does things – that just no-one else was capable of doing.
But it is a misconception it was all off-the-cuff.
He was the one who would practice those passes and stepping off both feet but also then pull you over for 20 minutes after training to say ‘listen, this is what I’m going to do and this is what I want you to do.’
He’d explain how even though he might not be looking at me on the pitch, to always expect the ball from him; he’d be looking out the back but he’d be giving it to me out the front.
For all it looked like he was some sort of magician and doing it all on the spur of the moment he actually worked really hard on his game and those skills.
He’d be the one in long discussions with Tim Sheens about plays, plays he’d seen other teams do and whether we could do them with the Tigers.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up going into coaching because he thinks about the game so much and is really passionate about it; you can see that in the way he plays.
But he’s also evolved his game, too; he’s probably not as quick as he was 15 years ago or as dynamic but he’s still winning games for the Tigers – as he did at the weekend with the drop goal in their ‘Golden Point’ win over North Queensland.
That’s because he’s adapted. That’s the kind of player he is.
It’s really good to see and, with (Kiwis coach) Michael Maguire being around him all the time as his coach at Wests, he can probably see what kind of impact Benji can still have on any team – and the players around him.
Benji, pictured, deserves a really big pat on the back as he’s been out of that international set-up for so long and is now deemed good enough to get back into it.
I’d love to see him playing against Tonga at the weekend.
I think (former New Zealand coach) Stephen Kearney thought Benji probably wasn’t the right person for the group at that time and it’s funny how coaches can shape where your career goes like that.
But with Maguire now being at Wests, almost 24/7, he’ll see just how professional and what sort of guy he really is.
Talking about Benji Marshall, our own Jake Connor at Hull FC is getting plenty of attention at the moment.
He came up with some quality plays again when we won at Castleford on Thursday night and he is such an exciting player.
I can see why people love watching him so much and, without a doubt, he can go on and establish himself as a true great of the game as well.
He is certainly one of the most talented players I’ve ever come across.
The things he does out there – the catches he makes, those passes – he is such a gifted player.
The biggest challenge for Jake, I think, is Jake.
It’s making sure he does stay level-headed, continues to want to improve and all those traits that made Benji and gave him the longevity he has had.
Jake has to constantly be thinking about his game, how he can get better as I think for any talented player it is very easy to get comfortable.
For myself, I’ve never been talented so if I ever wanted to achieve anything I’ve known I’ve always had to work hard for it.
Jake will probably get through a 15-year career without having to graft hard for it as he is so talented.
But that would be a shame as he has so much more to offer if he is prepared to work hard. He is still only 24. We’ve seen amazing things from Jake in the last two years and it is frightening what he is capable of.
There’s always more to come, though, and I can’t wait to see how Jake improves over the coming years.