ANDREW JOHNS – NINEMSN COLUMN

Good luck to Benji, wherever he might go

It now seems likely that Benji Marshall will leave our game to play Super Rugby with Auckland Blues after being released by Wests Tigers. Losing a player like Benji will be a great loss to rugby league, but no greater loss than when someone like Darren Lockyer retires. The game will go on and new talent will come through to fill the hole he leaves.

I’m not sure of the level of Benji’s experience in union or where Blues coach John Kirwan intends to play him, but I’m sure that once he adapts he’ll make an impact. The biggest thing Benji will have to get used to is the lack of space. With no 10 metre rule and improvements in both technique and structure over the years, rugby union defensive lines are fast moving and very effective. Even in a friendly game I once played, I remember being struck by just how little time I had with the ball before the defence was in my face.

I went close to signing with the Waratahs towards the end of my career because at that time I felt I needed a new challenge in my life. I’m sure Benji is looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead and I wish him all the best.

Unfortunately Benji couldn’t lift his Tigers over the rampaging Warriors last week in his last game at Leichhardt Oval. The Warriors are really starting to look threatening, as the serious part of the season rolls around. The Warriors have some incredible forwards, big blokes that are very hard to stop and create plenty of room for their backs. Props like Ben Matulino and Sam Rapira have been joined by Suaia Matagi off the bench. They have a mountain of talent over there and keep producing some great engine rooms, while halves Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai are starting to combine nicely.

The Warriors take on Melbourne Storm this weekend in what could be the match of the season. The Warriors always trouble the Storm because of the way they play the game – physically hard and direct. Melbourne will be fresh after the bye, but have to travel across the ditch to face the Warriors in front of a roaring Mt Smart Stadium crowd. I think the Warriors can grab the points and move closer to securing a finals berth.

One team realistically out of the race for the finals is St George Illawarra, but they are going to cause a lot of pain for teams still trying to make it. I really loved what I saw from them on Monday night against South Sydney. Coach Steve Price has been under pressure as he battled to find his best team this season, but he really has them playing to their strengths now. The Dragons have a lot of players capable of offloading the ball and in Josh Dugan they have the best in the game at exploiting the chances that come out of that second-phase ad-lib style of play. Dugan isn’t like Billy Slater or Brett Stewart who both thrive in structured plays – he works best in confusion. Dugan comes up against his old club Canberra this weekend who don’t like playing on the road, so it should be an interesting match.

Another big clash this weekend will be between Sydney Roosters and Newcastle Knights. Both teams had big wins last week, but the Roosters 40-0 crushing of Cronulla could be a bit of false indication of their form considering the players the Sharks were missing. I can’t split these two teams, on their day the Knights can beat anyone, but the Roosters defence has just been incredible this year.

Manly should move a step closer to securing a top four position on Monday night against the Tigers at Campbelltown. Brett Stewart is back and nearing his very best and his brother Glenn is starting to find form after struggling with a knee injury for much of the season. The Eagles looked very sharp in attack last week against the Gold Coast and it could be a long night for the Tigers in what has traditionally been a hard-fought battle.

It looks like being a great weekend of footy as we start to sort out exactly who will be around when the finals start. Stand-out competition leaders South Sydney look like they are really going to miss Greg Inglis and they won’t have it all their way this weekend against Gold Coast. The ladder could really start to bunch up as teams give their all to make the top eight and vital top four positions.

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