You didn’t have to be a Wests Tigers fan to feel sorry for Benji Marshall on Thursday night.
After finding out — by reading it in the media — he wasn’t wanted for 2021 at the club he debuted at as a teenager in 2003, there came the news he’s being denied a Leichhardt Oval farewell because of a scheduling clash and COVID-19 health restrictions.
Kayo is your ticket to the 2020 NRL Telstra Premiership. Every game of every round Live & On-Demand with no-ad breaks during play. New to Kayo? Get your 14-day free trial & start streaming instantly >
Marshall’s spirits could have been lifted by beating South Sydney but that was too much of an ask. The Tigers went down 20-0 in the first half before fighting back gallantly — just like they did against Manly last weekend — only to fall two points short in a 24-26 defeat.
As has been the case so often throughout his 17-year career, when the Tigers needed something special, they turned to Marshall. A vintage flick pass preceded Luke Brooks’ try in the 61st minute before a bullet cut-out ball to make league lovers drool hit Asu Kepaoa on the chest and sent the winger over for his first NRL try.
With less than two minutes to go and Wests needing a try to go ahead, the veteran five-eighth again found the ball in his hands. But his Hail Mary grubber on just the second tackle was way too heavy and instead of landing in the path of Chris Lawrence as intended, the ball went dead and sealed the Rabbitohs’ win.
Marshall was gutted.
After full-time, the sight of the 35-year-old — who has done everything in rugby league by winning grand finals, World Cups and captaining his country — looking absolutely shattered was enough to break your heart.
An exhausted Marshall hunched over, then slumped to his knee and put his head in his hand. Teammates came over to talk to him, but he didn’t respond, simply staring ahead and thinking about what could have been.
Clearly, the playmaker felt responsible for denying the Tigers a shot at victory with his late brain snap. He’s won more games for the joint-venture club than some people have had hot dinners but that wasn’t enough to ease the hurt.
NRL Scores: Round 18 match centres
RELATED: Axed Broncos coach walked away rich
Even at 35, unwanted by the team he’s become synonymous with, there were plenty of signs Marshall still has the magic touch that’s made him one of footy’s most popular players of the 21st century.
Nine’s Danny Weidler tweeted during the game: “Benji flick pass … few better sights in the NRL. Hope he finds another club.”
Phil Gould said Marshall will be “impossible to replace” while Aussie musician Troy Cassar-Daley wrote: “Benji Marshall is still playing great footy, I hope he finds a home next year.”
NRL reporter Chloe-Amanda Bailey said “that is just not right” the Tigers don’t want Marshall next year while English rugby league journalist Martyn Sadler tweeted: “Benji Marshall may be 35, but when you watch him you realise he’s still far too good to retire.”
Blue Wiggle Anthony Field praised Marshall for “playing like a champion” and the tweet below from teammate Michael Chee Kam summed up the sentiment around the Tigers icon.
Marshall has indicated he’d like to keep playing in 2021. Even if he returns to Leichhardt next year as an opposition player, you’d still bet on the Tigers faithful sinking schooners on the hill saving their loudest cheer for him.