Benji shows there's fire in his belly

Benji Marshall and Ben Hornby after training at WIN Stadium in Wollongong. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR
Benji Marshall and Ben Hornby after training at WIN Stadium in Wollongong. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR


There stood Ben Hornby, a blast from St George Illawarra's past, deep in conversation with a man whose critics denounce as, well, past it.

Long after his new teammates had scurried from the training field, there was Benji Marshall locked in animated discussion with Hornby, grazing in one half of the field as everyone exited the other.

Hornby, now on the coaching staff at the Dragons, is the only halfback to lead the Red V to a premiership since 1979. Any " this is how you do it, Benji" lectures? Probably not.

Symbolically, this was Benji letting everyone know he's dead serious about his rugby league rebirth with St George Illawarra.

Just as he had preached to his new teammates before Tuesday's field session, Marshall needs to win their respect. And quickly.

Meandering into the sheds just as half of his new buddies are heading for their cars was a good way to prove this won't be a Benji circus.

"He got up and said a few words and it's important for him to earn the respect of his teammates - and I'm sure he will," said coach Steve Price, who later flocked to the Marshall-Hornby pow-wow with assistant Paul McGregor.

Beforehand, apart from a slew of camera lenses trained on his every move, it was hard to think Marshall was anything but just another constant piece of the increasingly frustrating Dragons jigsaw.

There were no theatrics. Just a few words of encouragement from the coach and teammates, audible enough for onlookers, to make the new boy feel welcome. No give-me-the-ball demands. Only a couple of muted calls just to remind the distributors he was an option. Another cog in a machine trying to splutter out of second gear.

His condition?

"Going by [Tuesday's] session he's in reasonable shape," Price said. "It wasn't a taxing session by any means, but he got through it all and he did a bit of extra kicking at the end."

Halfway through, Marshall motioned to Dragons performance director Andrew Gray to help alleviate him of cramp. All that running during the pre-season of his failed rugby stint still can't compensate for match practice.

Whether Marshall suits up for his St George Illawarra debut as early as Saturday against Parramatta remains to be seen. Price will make a call later in the week, but a further two-week settling-in period with the Dragons scheduled for a bye afterwards looks an attractive option.

But his mere presence at training just might be enough to spark the Dragons out of their early-season slumber, which has consigned them to defeat in five of their past six matches.

"He's a special player and there's a certain aura about him that players like to be around," fellow Kiwi international Gerard Beale said. "He certainly spreads confidence throughout a team.

"We're really lucky to have him here at the club and it's going to be exciting when he gets to put on the Red V."

NSW star Trent Merrin was so hyped with the prospect of playing with Benji he implored Price to get Marshall's signature.

The youthful Merrin exemplifies the type of player Marshall chose over an ageing Sharks side, albeit with a host of his mates among their ranks.

Set to fit into a United Nations backline with Australian, New Zealand and English internationals, Merrin reckons there will only be one problem for the former Tiger.

"He knows how to play the game and he just needs to learn the calls," he joked. "I think the Kiwis struggle with Aussies."

And after all these years and all the success you could want in rugby league, the Dragons still found a reason to reach out to a man who, in his own words, was "lazy" and "too comfortable" last year. Reach out with a $1.1 million olive branch over 2½ years no less.

"Benji is a winner," Price said. "He's shown that over the years and as he said in that press conference on Friday, he was disappointed with how he finished.

"As you can see, he openly admitted there were areas in his game where he let himself down. He's worked extremely hard to get that right," Price said.

"He's a proud man and a very humble man."

Hornby can relate to that.


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