From '05 hero to the ultimate utility: Benji Marshall's 16-year evolution between NRL deciders

Stadium Australia roared with a raucous wave of celebration as a 20-year-old Kiwi produced a stroke of genius, setting up one of the most famous tries in NRL history.

"Who does that?" The commentators cried in disbelief of Benji Marshall, who'd flown down the field and flicked the ball to Pat Richards as the Wests Tigers went on the claim the 2005 title.

Marshall's flamboyance, fancy footwork and flicks made him an NRL hero of the mid-2000s. Coach Tim Sheens told the teenage halfback he could do whatever he wanted on the field as long as he practiced it.

And that he did. The New Zealand talent inflicted damage with a brand and skills arsenal no one had seen before, and even his teammates learned to be on alert once he touched the ball.

That's how it was for Richards as Marshall received the ball from fullback Brett Hodgson deep in their half, because that first touch was where the magic started.

The moment was not all about Marshall's famous flick - it was also his ability to read the play, roam from five-eighth to the wing, his trademark steps, and how he drew the Cowboys towards touch for Richards to finish off the feat with a big fend and four points.

"You'd just have to expect anything [from him]. We just read the play and I realised Benji was running cross-field into touch, so I just decided to come inside. I didn't even realise he had flicked the ball to be honest until a few days after," Richards tells ESPN.

"Everyone kept replaying it, talking about it and all that. It was just normal, it was the way we'd practiced that year. Tim always had us practicing that flick pass, doing all these basketball kind of skills and really promoting that.

"So it did come out on the big stage. It just sort of stuck. I put my hand out and luckily enough it stuck, and I ended up getting the try.

"It's amazing. I don't think that try would have been replayed as much if Benji wasn't involved in it. He had that sort of star power about him back then. It's grown to be the moment of that Grand Final, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time."

As September comes to an end for another year, so does another NRL finals series with that highlight reel hit on repeat. Only this season it has more significance.

Marshall will feature in his second decider on Sunday as the South Sydney Rabbitohs clash with the Penrith Panthers for the 2021 title.

His 16-year wait between Grand Finals is the longest in NRL history, with the 36-year-old veteran outlasting former teammate Lote Tuqiri - who featured in the Broncos 2000 and the Rabbitohs 2014 sides.

"It's hard to comprehend at the moment. It's been so long I almost forgot about what Grand Final week was like," Marshall said to the media on Tuesday.

"I'm just really grateful to be in this position, to have this opportunity. There's been a couple of times, especially in the last five years, where it looked like my career was over.

"To be able to be here with a great club that has shown me a lot of support, especially from the players, to get me here. With Wayne [Bennett], the club and the fans... I'm really enjoying myself at the moment."

For the last five seasons Marshall has played on one-year contracts. He first linked with Bennett at the Broncos in 2017 before returning to Concord where he would remain with the Tigers for three seasons.

But he looked destined for retirement at the beginning of 2021 after the Tigers, where he's the highest point scorer and second-most capped player ever, shut the door on a new deal.

He was close to signing with the Bulldogs to unite with his brother Jeremy Marshall-King before the club went cold, so instead he called Bennett for a lifeline to end his career on a high note.

His arrival in Redfern was a shock as it was unclear where he'd fit in, with the Rabbitohs already boasting a strong-starting combination of Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker in the halves. But in effect it was a stroke of wizardry as Bennett turned the NRL's oldest player into the ultimate utility.

Marshall and the master coach have transformed the role of the No.14 as he came on for stints across the field this season, including at lock and hooker for the first time in his decorated 19-year career.

Although the razzle dazzle of his heyday has faded, Marshall has been as effective from a tactical and leadership perspective. The 2010 Golden Boot winner credits his longevity in the NRL to his resilience and ability to adapt his body and playing-style to suit the game's changes.

"I think one of the things a lot of people don't talk about when it comes to me is resilience," Marshall said.

"I had five shoulder reconstructions at a young age, missed out on like 70 games due to injury throughout my career. So to bounce back from that for me is one of the things I'm most proud of.

"To play 19 years in this competition is pretty special as well. I've had to change my body to try not to get so injured, especially with my shoulders. I've probably had to change my game as I've gotten older into playing a lot smarter and not so flashy and instinctive.

"I've really enjoyed the evolution of what I've had to do with my game... every year I've had something to work on and try to be better at.

"Because I've gotten older, everyone has a stigma about age. It doesn't matter how old you are, you've just got to keep on going and I feel like I've changed heaps of stuff over the last 12 years of my career, not just the last four to five. If you want to keep getting better, you have to change your game."

And so the Marshall who'll run onto Suncorp Stadium this weekend is far removed from the 20-year-old sensation who rocked the rugby league world in 2005.

Marshall has been credited as one of the most influential players in rugby league history, with his fancy footwork and flick passes inspiring a generation of kids on both sides of the Tasman.

His vintage moves have come through with those who made it to the NRL, with the likes of Kalyn Ponga and Shaun Johnson incorporating his big steps with the same flash and flair.

"He's inspired so many young kids. To be someone like that out there doing that, it's incredible you know," Richards said.

"People always come up to me and one of the first things they bring up is the [Grand Final] try and talk about Benji. Everyone is so fascinated by him because he was one of the first to do that [flick pass] in our game. He was a bit of a pioneer and he has definitely inspired so many.

"What I loved about him was that attacking footy, and that's what people paid money to come watch, to see you excite the crowd and all that. Benji was a huge part of that."

Although the Kiwi international has replaced his flicks and tricks with a more measured approach to the game, he still captures the imagination of fans by his constant evolution into what Richards describes as "the complete player."

"I think at the start of his career he basically just played footy. Whatever was in front of him, he attacked with a confidence about him," Richards said.

"Now he's much more calculated and understands the game so much more. He's been a student of the game as well and has control of certain situations now, he's a completely different player from when he first started. His game has evolved so much.

"I got to play with that young, exciting, brash sort of young kid, and now he's pretty much the complete player. The transition has been unreal and he's still as effective, but in a different way now than what was at the start of his career. But at the start when he was that young, exciting player - I love those days, you know."

And so Marshall's career will come full circle with a fairytale finish to the season in Brisbane. Although it would be fitting to bow out on the NRL's biggest stage, he has no intention of retiring just yet.

"If you've still got the desire and passion to play and you want to play, why not?" Marshall said.

But should Marshall opt not to crack the NRL's record and continue for a 20th season, he would finish as one of rugby league's greatest showmen with 96 tries and 260 try assists across 344 NRL matches - as well as 31 Tests for New Zealand and a World Cup win in 2008.

"I think someone of his stature deserves the big stage and I think it's ironic that if it is his last game, it's a Grand Final because that's where Benji has made his name - on that big stage. Even at the World Cup final and all that, he always delivers in those big moments," Richards said.

"If he does hang up, who knows? Every year I think it could have been [his last] but let's just enjoy him as he is and if he goes again, then he does and it just proves how competitive he is.

"He still wants to do it and is contributing out there, when he comes on for Souths he's playing a perfect role where he could be in the middle - he could be anywhere. He's really making an impact in the team as well."