Marshall makes emotional return, while Māori rookies impress Maguire

By James Perry

Benji Marshall lets his emotions show during the national anthem. Photo/SkyTV.

Benji Marshall made an emotional and successful return to international rugby league last night, in the Kiwis 34-14 victory over Mate Ma'a Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland.

Marshall could not hold back his tears while singing the national anthem for the first time in seven years.

"Obviously, when the anthem came on, I lost it there for a bit," Marshall said this morning.

"But, the good thing is after that, you get to come on and do the haka, so you have to get your mind from thinking about your family and representing your country and go straight into war mode."

Adding to the emotion was knowing his wife and fifteen-month-old son had managed to make the trip across the Tasman from Sydney. His son witnessed his father perform the haka on the field for the first time.

"My wife took some videos of him watching the haka on the big screen, he was doing his pūkanas," Marshall says.

"She said he had the best time ever. For me, that's a big part of why I play now and a big part of my motivation."

Marshall and his halves' partner Shaun Johnson combined well to guide the Kiwis around the paddock in front of more than 22,000 mainly Tongan fans. While he feels he didn't play his best football, Marshall is pleased with the way the team performed as a whole.

"Yeah, performance-wise I thought I could have been better, but in terms of a team I thought we defended our line strongly for each other and showed a lot of signs of how much the jersey meant to us."

Benji Marshall (R) and Shaun Johnson played together for only the second time in their career, the first time since 2012. Photo/SkyTV.

Briton Nikora and Jahrome Hughes were two Māori players who wore the Kiwis jersey for the first time last night. Coach Michael Maguire was impressed by how they both handled the occasion against the big Tongan team. 

Maguire was, particularly, impressed by Hughes who played in the unfamiliar role of dummy-half. Hughes was unfortunate to not to get any game time during the Kiwis tour to the UK at the end of last season, but Maguire says Hughes has proven he earned his selection last night.

"He went away and he's worked at his game and he came up with some big plays last night. He played in a position he's never played before, so he did a great job there," Maguire says.

Hughes managed to score a try on debut with a darting run out of dummy-half late in the second half.

Maguire and Marshall both believe the pair are destined to have great international careers.

"They've been outstanding all week. They're going to have long careers if they keep going, in the black and white jumper," Marshall says.

Brandon Smith was another player who stood out last night. The hooker, who has earned the nickname "Little Block of Cheese", scored the first try of the night, with a 30 metre run from dummy-half, leaving defenders sprawled in his wake, like participants at the annual cheese rolling event near Gloucester, England.

Maguire says the sky is the limit for Smith, the Waiheke Rams product.

"Players are always looking for that edge now and that's why the game has gone up and up and the way it's being played. So, I think if Brandon keeps his head down and keeps working hard, well there's no reason why he can't become one of the greats for the Kiwi jersey," he says.

The Kiwis squad left camp in Auckland today and will return to their respective NRL clubs. They are due to re-group in October ahead of their clash with the Kangaroos in Wollongong.