From a childhood as something of a waif and stray to the best player in the world, Benji Marshall's journey has been a remarkable one.
Marshall, who will captain New Zealand against England tonight in the match that will decide which side progresses to the final of the Four Nations, could hardly have had a more challenging start to life in the town of Whakatane in what, for him, was the badly-misnamed Bay of Plenty.
Born when his mother was only 15 and still at school, he never knew his biological father and was largely brought up by a number of uncles and other male relatives.
"I had 10 or 11 dads, which was not a bad thing," he has said of his unorthodox upbringing, which also saw him move from house to house like a nomad.
Always the skinny kid of the family, he was toughened up by playing rugby league with and against his fully-grown uncles, who made no allowances for him. In his mid-teens, he won a scholarship to Keeba Park Secondary School on Australia's Gold Coast, a famous rugby league nursery which also groomed the youngster destined to be England's latest half-back, Rangi Chase.
Chase was regarded as a second Marshall and they shared a house for a time. "He's one of my best mates, but not this week," Marshall says. "This week we're enemies."
He does not blame his protégé, however, for casting in his lot with England. "You can't deny any player that choice when he's made a life for himself over here," he says.
Despite playing for the Australian Schoolboys and for Australia at touch rugby, Marshall made the early decision that he was and would remain a Kiwi. It is not one that he has had much cause to regret. After struggling to string together games through injuries to his relatively slight frame in his early days as a Test player, he has become a fixture in the side, leading them to the World Cup in 2008 and the Four Nations last year, when he was also named as the game's International Player of the Year.
This will be the 17th time he has captained the Kiwis, closing in on Gary Freeman's record of 19. "That's something you think about at the end of your career," he says. "Right now, all my focus is on this weekend. We want to win the Four Nations again and to do that we have to beat England first."
At club level, he has won a Grand Final with Wests Tigers, where he also plays alongside two members of the England pack. The qualities of Gareth Ellis are well known, but Marshall says England also have a winner in the Australian-born Chris Heighington. "He's one of the most genuine guys I've ever come across. He can get along with anyone and he's one of my favourite players to play with," he says.
It is a mark of Marshall's excellence that even those who know him best can claim little insight into how to stop him. "It's difficult to predict him, because he's pretty much off the cuff," Heighington says. "Even at training he's got his bag of tricks." Marshall was the only Kiwi voted the best in the world in his position last week.
There are two sorts of stand-offs – the individualist playing on flair and instinct and the organiser setting up play for those around him. Benji Marshall is both kinds. No wonder that the team-talk for any side facing him always includes the words "Stop Benji". Easier said than done.Reuse content