First published in Rugby League World, Issue 390 (Oct 2013)
Robbie Hunter-Paul hopes that the World Cup provides one final great stage for two of the modern game’s most celebrated players.
Will Benji Marshall and Sonny Bill Williams, two of the genuine superstars of our sport, play for New Zealand in this year’s Rugby League World Cup?
Marshall has already confirmed he will be making a post season move to the other code to play for the Auckland Blues at the end of the year, and it is heavily suggested that SBW will also return to the sport that has helped make him a globally recognised brand.
Neither athlete has confirmed or denied that they will or will not be taking part in this year’s World Cup at the time of writing, but as a Kiwi and a Rugby League fan I must say if the latter comes to pass it will be supremely disappointing.
So what’s the big fuss? Well few players have dominated the rugby headlines like these two have in the modern era of sport, and they have both been recognised as not only world class but also as innovators; changing the face of modern Rugby League very much in the way Michael Jordan changed the style and play for the NBA.
Marshall brings a host of outstanding, unique skills with gravity defying footwork and amazing ball handling skills that leaves spectators and pundits screaming “What was that?” He also has speed to boot and can sustain a break in play to finish tries over a long distance.
To me his main skill is as a provider and his try assist rate over the course of his professional career has been astonishing.
Sonny Bill Williams on the other hand has the advantage and gift of complete athleticism – he is a “specimen”, a biological freak of nature.
He has shovels for hands that allow him to off load within the smallest of margins in near impossible situations. In Rugby League he is an exceptional ball handling edge back rower, but has the footwork of some of the best centres in the game, which is why RU play him in the backs.
His God-given ability and personal work ethic has seen him excel in not only in both codes of rugby but also in the square ring where he now has a host of wins under his belt as a professional heavyweight boxer.
The Kiwis would love to have both of these skill sets to help bolster the ranks and create further internal competition for the starting 13 positions. It would not only be their talent, but also their experience which would be so valuable, especially to the players around them.
I always felt I learnt more about the detail of Rugby League from the great players around me than I ever did from any one coach, and for the young Kiwi stars they would be learning from the best.
Both of these current playing legends would not only be great assets for their native New Zealand but they would also be massive draws for the World Cup as marketing tools and marquee entertainers. They would demand high profile coverage due to their unique ongoing stories and their relationship with the other code.
Sonny Bill set the British rugby union world alight when he toured here with the All Blacks in 2010, making his debut against England and getting man of the match against the Scots a week later. Like Jonah Lomu, the British media could not get enough of him and column inches even overshadowed football at times.
This would also work well for Benji Marshall as he prepares to join the Auckland Blues. He has publicly stated that he is keen to represent the All Blacks so once again this would motivate not just the faithful RL journos to take notice, but also all those interested in seeing the talent of one of this generation’s most gifted stars and a potential international rugby union “game breaker”. Watch them all roll up and cast judgment – good or bad. So the sport would not be harmed by extra column inches even if it is in a different section of the papers, because as they say all publicity is good publicity.
Whether they do or they don’t make themselves available, I know the World Cup is still going to be of the highest order because putting these two aside we’ll still have the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, the Burgess Boys, Sam Tomkins, James Graham, Shaun Johnson, Billy Slater – the list goes on and on and on.
For me one of the greatest assets we have and what I have always loved about Rugby League is, the intensity the sport is played at means that we will continue to breed entertaining athletes like all of those mentioned above.
The nature of our code is to bring the best out of the athletes so they perform at the highest level. Players and coaches know there is nowhere to hide on a Rugby League field so at all times you must have that edge about you, and for these simple reasons this is why we call it “The Greatest Game”, and why I cannot wait until Saturday October 26.
For me, it would be made just that little bit tastier if I got to see the talents of both Benji and SBW wearing that little silver fern over their hearts and playing the tournament as if it was their last.