Marshall defies all odds

Despite a chequered past with many ups and downs, New Zealand scrum-half Justin Marshall has bounced back in the autumn of his career to make an impact with English Premiership side Saracens.

Justin Marshall has continued to impress for English Premiership side Saracens in the past six months despite a series of off-field issues.
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Despite a chequered past with many ups and downs, New Zealand scrum-half Justin Marshall has bounced back in the autumn of his career to make an impact with English Premiership side Saracens. Throughout a distinguished career, Justin Marshall has seen it, done it and got the T-shirt (well, 81 treasured Test jerseys for New Zealand, anyway). His desire to extend his playing career as long as possible and enhance his experience of playing in the northern hemisphere saw him jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Marshall fulfilled a dream of playing in France earlier this year when he signed for Montpellier after two years with the Ospreys. But the dream quickly turned sour. "I joined on a one-plus-one-year deal, but I was told fairly early on that I was not part of things going forward," he said. "I then had a disagreement with the coaches over a substitution. We were 34-0 down against Toulouse and they wanted to send me on with seven minutes to go.

"I questioned the sensibility of sending on a 35-year-old in temperatures of five degrees who had just been out for seven weeks with a hamstring I had torn three times. "They suspended me, cut my pay and banned me from the stadium. That was extremely French and extremely bizarre. "The president left, then the new president resigned and the old one came back. "The coaches resigned and the players were unhappy. The ship was half sunk, the door was open for me to swim out and I was happy to do that. That was when Eddie Jones called me."

Jones was then in charge of Saracens, the English Premiership club, and was seeking a replacement for his first-choice scrum-half Neil de Kock who had broken a leg. Marshall could not believe his luck and signed a deal until the end of the season. Yet within weeks Marshall found himself caught in the eye of an internal storm. The club's new South African investors, who also have a stake in the Super 14 sides the Natal Sharks and Vodacom Stormers, had decided they wanted Brendan Venter, a former Springbok, to replace Jones at the end of the season and bring in a raft of South African players to attract a new fan base from the country's expatriate community in the south-east of England.

At a highly charged squad meeting, 15 players were told they had no future at the club. Jones resigned in protest and Steve Borthwick, the England and Saracens captain, also came close to following suit. "I've never been to war but that was closest I've come to walking into a minefield," said Marshall. "It was a very interesting time. I've seen a few things in my time but after leaving Montpellier and the walking into the fire at Saracens I was starting to wonder where the game was going." It speaks volumes for Marshall's professionalism and ability that even in the autumn of his career he rose above the politics to produce a series of fine displays that earned him a one-year deal. It will probably be his last.

"The way I feel I still think I'll be able to play professional rugby at 45, but I have three young children and we've been away from friends and family in New Zealand for a long time now," he said. "Opportunities are now presenting themselves to me prior to the World Cup in 2011 so that's made the decision for me. I know when I do retire, I won't be ready to." Players such as Schalk Brits, the all-singing and all-dancing hooker signed by Saracens from the Stormers, are clearly helping to give Marshall a new lease of life.

"He is a modern-day rugby player like I've never seen, he does his core jobs like scrum and throw the ball into the line-out, but this guy can kick, pass, reverse pass and sidestep better than most backs. He is better than me anyway," he said. "He's going to be dynamo. He's the sort of guy who likes playing in warm weather but he's obviously going to have to go through a period in England where that is not going to happen but we haven't let on to him about the weather yet."

Marshall hopes the weather will be set fair this Saturday afternoon when Saracens host Northampton at Wembley in a league game. A crowd of more than 45,000 is expected. Marshall played at the famous stadium in 1997, captaining New Zealand to a 42-7 victory over Wales. He partnered his sidekick Andrew Mehrtens that day at half-back. "Mehrtens always described it like a marriage and always professed to be the man and me the woman. I think it was the other way round," he joked.