A Tribute to the One and Only – Benji Marshall

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Wests Tigers die-hard Daniel Boss provides his perspective and a statistical analysis on Benji Marshall’s decision to leave the Tigers (and the NRL) to play Rugby Union.

While I had the sneaking suspicion that it would happen, it still came as a shock to see that Benji Marshall was in fact going to leave my beloved Tigers. Benji is my favourite Tigers player of all time and still will be. However, as I will mention later in the article, the Benji Marshall that I loved to watch play no longer exists in my opinion. At least, I was never going to see it while he was in a Tigers uniform.

Even though it is sad to see that Benji will not see out his career at the Tigers, it is the right move for both player and the club. The one aspect that has been missed by the mainstream media about these contract negotiations is that Benji has had 4 shoulder reconstructions. He will be a very arthritic old man. The fact that he has come back from these injuries shows just how tough this man is. He needs to do what is best for Benji.

As for the Tigers, I believe that this is a good move. From an outsider’s perspective, Benji just hasn’t had that same bounce or swagger in his play over the last couple of seasons, especially this year. He was obviously close with previous coach Tim Sheens (despite possibly having a say in his removal last year) and CEO Stephen Humphries. It appears (again, this is an outside perspective) that Benji is clashing with current coach Mick Potter.

In addition to this, the Tigers recruitment and retention policy over the past couple of seasons has been diabolical as they have gone from back-to-back top 4 finishes to (likely) missing the top 8 for the past 2 seasons. As a result, the club is in a rebuilding phase and need all to retain as many of the young players, in particular those who were part of the Under 20’s premiership last year and young halves Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses. If Benji had have stayed, there is a fair chance that the Tigers would have lost some of these players, probably to Cronulla. To lose players in order to keep someone who wasn’t overly happy to be there would have set the club back further.

Statistical Analysis

For those who are unaware, I have a statistical background, having completed a bachelor degree of Actuarial Studies. The basis of this analysis is to show that there will be a lower defensive workload in Super Rugby, when compared to the NRL. In order to be able to compare the two sports, I have made the following assumptions:

  1. Each tackle has the same impact. As I prove later, there are fewer tacklers per tackle in rugby union, which will increase impact. However, it could be argued that rugby league tackles have greater impact as the defence is back 10 metres, which means greater collisions. I am assuming that all of these impacts cancel each other out.
  2. Each set of data has a standard normal distribution. This is the standard distribution to use when creating confidence intervals for data. It also is the easiest to use and understand.
  3. Benji Marshall will play at fly half in the Super Rugby competition when he plays rugby union. There is an argument that suggests that Marshall will play at fullback. If this is the case, then a fair comparison would not be able as he would not be in the main line of defence. Also, the Super Rugby is the highest standard of rugby union, aside from internationals, so any other competitions (for example, Japanese rugby) are considered less intense.

The data I have used is for all Super Rugby games from Rounds 17 to 20 and all NRL games from Rounds 16 to 18. Both comprise of 19 games with 38 observations for each. I obtained the data from Sportsdata, who provide free statistics online for both the NRL and Super Rugby. In these comparisons, there are some notes that I would like to add. For Super Rugby, I did not include the Round 20 game between the Blues and the Chiefs as individual tackle counts were not available at the time of analysis. For the NRL, I did not include the North Queensland-Manly game from Round 18 as the minutes played per player were not available during my analysis.

The analysis compares the total number of tackles made by a team in a game and the total number of tackles made by the starting fly half or five eight of that team. I should also add that for the Bulls-Kings game from Round 18 of the Super Rugby season, I include Morne Steyn as the five eight even though he did not start the game. The reason for this is that starting Bulls fly half Louis Fouche only played 17 minutes and Steyn is a recognised fly half.

The average tackles recorded by an NRL team in one game is 327.97, while the average for Super Rugby is 123.11. In terms of the total number of tackles made by a fly half or five eight per game, the average per game for an NRL five eight is 17.00, while the average for a Super Rugby fly half is 7.22. The numbers are both higher for the NRL but may be insignificant after the 95% confidence interval analysis is completed.

For total tackles made by an entire team over a whole game, the 95% confidence interval for the NRL is (315.54, 340.41) and the 95% confidence interval for Super Rugby is (109.90, 136.32). In terms of total tackles by a fly half or five eight in a game, the 95% confidence interval for Super Rugby fly halves is (6.04, 8.41) while the 95% confidence interval for NRL five eights is (15.16, 18.84). Based on these figures, I am 95% confident that on average there are fewer tackles recorded in Super Rugby than in the NRL and that Super Rugby fly halves make fewer tackles than NRL five eights.

To calculate the confidence interval, the following is added or taken away from the average: 1.96 * sample standard deviation / square root of the number of observations (36 in this example). I won’t get to specific here, but the sample standard deviation allows for a slightly greater standard deviation and confidence interval accordingly, as we are not using the total population of data.

Ok, so the NRL has more tackles recorded on average per game than Super Rugby. Well, Union fans would argue that there are more players in tackles in rugby league which inflates the NRL numbers. That is a fair point, so the next analysis compares total opposition runs in a game instead of total tackles made in a game.

The average of total runs per game in the NRL is 159.89 per game, which is higher than Super Rugby’s 94.83 per game. This suggests that there is a difference between the NRL and Super Rugby in this statistic. The confidence intervals for Total Opposition Runs supports this statement as the 95% confidence interval for the NRL is (154.56, 165.21) and the 95% confidence interval for Super Rugby is (85.71, 103.95). Again, I am 95% confident that on average, there are more runs per game in the NRL than in Super Rugby.

Lastly, I will replace total tackles by a fly half or five eight in a game with number of tackles by a fly half or five eight per minute. The analysis is completed below.

In this analysis, one outlier comes to the fore. This outlier is Manly’s Tom Symonds, who is a noted back rower but started at five eight in the Round 16 game against the Roosters. For the calculation of the average and confidence interval for the number of tackles per minute by a five eight, this observation is omitted from calculation. The average after adjustment for NRL five eights is 0.211 tackles per minutes, compared with 0.098 for Super Rugby fly halves. The 95% confidence interval for the number of tackles made per minute by an NRL five eight is (0.188, 0.233). The 95% confidence interval for the number of tackles made per minute by a Super Rugby fly half is (0.082, 0.114). As a result, I am 95% confident that on average an NRL five eight has to make more tackles per minute than a Super Rugby fly half.

For interest, the confidence intervals for total opposition runs and total tackles made in a game are barely impacted when the above mentioned outlier is taken away. There is some difference in the confidence interval in tackles made by an NRL five eight per game, as it is lower at (14.94, 18.60). This is still larger than the confidence interval for Super Rugby fly half tackles in a game and the same result occurs.

Based on my findings, I am 95% confident that on average, the following will occur:

  • An NRL five eight will make more tackles per game than a Super Rugby fly half, both in terms of total amounts and tackles per minute played.
  • There are more runs at the defensive line in an NRL game than in a Super Rugby game.

As a result of those findings and the assumption that all tackles have the same impact, Benji Marshall’s reconstructed shoulders should have less chance of taking further damage by playing rugby union. I’m not stating that rugby league is a better game than rugby union (even though that is my opinion); I’m just using the stats to state that his defensive workload should be much less next year.

Personal View

To put it simply, I grew up with rugby league. I learned to read before I started school and this was because I learned how to read rugby league yearbooks. My favourite team was Balmain, as they were either first in the alphabet or because orange is my favourite colour. I can’t quite remember. My earliest memories are of watching rugby league, in particular the year in review videos that I used to watch before I started school. My school bag in my infant years was a Balmain Tigers bag. I started playing the game when I was 8 and I kept playing until I was 16 (aside from one year away from the game on a sabbatical).

I was also never the most confident person growing up. In fact, I still struggle at times with it. I never did quite fit in with the popular people at school and it didn’t help that I was seen as a nerd in a country town like Orange. The analysis above gives this view some credence. While rugby league was very popular in Orange, I could never go around wearing my team’s jersey with a lot of pride. Year after year, seasons would come and go with the Tigers always missing the semi-finals. Then, they decided to merge so I would no longer be supporting Balmain. I decided to support the joint venture team but they were achieving similar results.

This was the case until 2003. The Tigers had a lot of salary cap space and purchased some good players for the next season like Scott Prince, Brett Hodgson and Scott Sattler. Then along comes Round 20, where the Tigers smash Newcastle and one of the stars was the debutant named Marshall. I actually didn’t watch this game for some reason, so I didn’t really know what to make of the hype. I then saw his next start, Round 23 against Brisbane where he single-handedly won the Tigers the game. I knew that with this gun youngster and some other good signings, the Tigers were a chance to go a bit better in 2004 and were a chance to make the finals.

In 2004, things started to turn for me. I really got behind the team in this season and started to feel more confident and comfortable in the presence of others. The Tigers were also in finals contention, although the team had more of a swagger when Marshall was in the side. Unfortunately, he only played 7 games in 2004 as the Tigers just missed the semi-finals. Then along came 2005…

In the 2005 season, I was confident every time the Tigers played as I knew that Benji could just do anything on the field. It was early in this season that Benji became my favourite player. His confidence and swagger were two traits that made me want to support him. We all know the season would end in premiership glory for the mighty Tigers (one of the happiest moments of my entire life), but there were three efforts from Marshall in the finals series that were just unbelievable. Obviously, one of these was his trademark run to set up Pat Richards’ length of the field try. The other two came in the second week of the finals series against Brisbane. The Broncos were on top of this game in the early stages. The first of these came when Marshall miraculously held up Darren Smith who looked destined to score. The second was an intercept on the Tigers’ own try line to score a length of the field try. These two efforts changed the game as it could have been 10 or 12-0 to the Broncos but was 4-0 to the Tigers instead. These are two plays that are often overlooked when analysing Benji’s career.

After the premiership in 2005, I thought it was the beginning of the league’s next dynasty. Unfortunately, Marshall was plagued with injury over the next few seasons. 2006 was a horrid year for Tigers on the injury front. In addition to that, the Tigers lost captain and halfback Scott Prince. It took the Tigers two and a half years to recover from that loss in my opinion. In this time, I moved out of home and to Canberra in 2007, which was a difficult transition to say the least. Again, it was through my love of the Tigers that people at university started to warm to me and vice versa. In fact, I got into many arguments with rugby union supporters who claimed that Dan Carter was a better player than Benji. Ironically, Dan Carter is the big outlier in the Super Rugby data above.

It was the second half of the 2009 season that the Tigers, and Benji coincidentally, started to really find some mojo again. A harsh defeat to the Eels in Round 24 would decide the team’s fate that year. However, the form shown in the back end of the 2009 season gave me enough hope for the 2010 season. This season, the Tigers would finish 3rd and came so close to winning the premiership that year. It was a taxing finals series for my heart that is for sure. After the 2010 season, recognition came for Benji in the form of the Golden Boot award for best player in the world. From the second half of the 2009 season to the end of the 2011 season, Benji was simply untouchable. The following season, the Tigers blew a shot at a premiership by choking against the Warriors who would eventually make the Grand Final.

It was 2011 when I started full-time work and again I was struggling somewhat with confidence issues. It wasn’t until the Monday after Benji was charged (and later acquitted of) with assault. I wrote on my whiteboard “BENJI MARSHALL: INNOCENT VICTIM”. This caught the attention of a few of my work colleagues and I still hear about that from time to time. In 2012, I actually met Benji for the first time. I was so ridiculously nervous for this meeting, that I can’t describe it any better than to say that I was like a frightened schoolgirl. Anyone who is connected to me on Facebook can see this photo.

However, over the past two years, he hasn’t been the same player. For whatever reason, he hasn’t challenged the line like he used to or shown that same swagger like the Benji of old. I mentioned at the start that the Benji I loved to watch growing up no longer exists. I hope I’m wrong and I hope that he can find some of best in his last 8 games for the Tigers. The Benji of old would have seen the turning back on the ‘handshake agreement’ between him and former CEO Humphries as a challenge and looked to prove the Tigers wrong. I see this move as a sign that Benji is giving up and as such it is a bit of a disappointment to me. However, as I mentioned above he is doing this move for himself and himself only, which I understand. Yet, seeing him leave the club is a sad sight.

I’ve essentially given you a life story. However, this has a purpose as my support and love of the Tigers is intertwined with my life and my identity. The most prominent Tigers player in my lifetime is Benji Marshall. I feel like I grew up with him, as we have both matured over the past decade. Over the years since I have supported Benji, I have grown up and am now a man. I now work full-time and am starting to see a receding hair line, but I always felt that watching Benji was a way to stay in touch with my younger self. Unfortunately, that link will not be there for too much longer.

While it is a shame that Benji couldn’t see out his career at the Tigers, I wish him all the best in the future. I will always remember what he has done for me through his ambitious and enterprising play. He helped my team win a premiership, a sight that Cronulla supporters (including my older brother) are yet to see. I will be forever grateful. I will definitely be at Benji’s last home game in Round 25. I hope that he ends his rugby league career in style and if I do get the chance to meet him again, I will simply tell him “Thank you”. Go you Tigers! Black and Gold do not fold!

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