Benji Marshall’s signing for the Dragons – less than 12 months after he left the Tigers – is best summed up, as is so often the case, by a 90’s sitcom about four neurotic New Yorkers (or in grade cricket parlance, “four coats”).
“Loyalty to any one sports team is hard to justify. Because the players are always changing. The team can move to another city. You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it” — Jerry Seinfeld.
In the modern game, we’ve come to accept players code-hopping and team-swapping. Like sending snapchats of your latest sexual conquests to teammates, it is simply part of the game.
As such, the team we support can morph substantially over the years. In the case of the Wests Tigers, one day the fans are cheering on Scott Prince, Ben Teo and Bronson Harrison; the next season they are jeering the same players – simply because they’re wearing a different coloured uniform.
“This is the same human being in a different shirt. They hate him now. Boooooo” — Seinfeld, again.
Any true fan wants The Seinfeld Clothes Theory to be false.
If we want to maintain the facade of team loyalty, we need to deny the Theory. Team allegiance must be more than barracking for a logo. If it isn’t, then watching sports just becomes a bit rare. Like Hiroo Onoda, we need to ignore the facts in front of our faces and keep fighting the war.
And that’s why it is sad when a player of Marshall’s ilk joins another team, despite previous assertions to:
“….honour my words about not playing for another (NRL) club. There is no other NRL club for me to play for. The Tigers are my home and will always be my home.”
You see, to refute the Seinfeld Clothes Theory, we need One Club Men. Players who comes through the junior ranks, spend long careers at the club, and upon retirement take up a position in the backroom staff – they pretty much never, ever leave. These players encapsulate and define the ethos and culture of a club.
Like Harold and Madge from Neighbours, the club and player grow together until are an inseparable, intertwined and powerful entity. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts. Without one another, they cease to function.
One Club Men give fans a reference point. In a world where the jerseys change design every year (or every week, depending which cause/minority/corporation rugby league is paying lip service to), the home stadium changes just as often, the coach and most of the players don’t stick around too long, the One Club Man provides continuity, stability and familiarity in this sea of change.
The One Club Man is widely held in high esteem; deified by his own fans and respected by others. Unless you’re a 14 year old Collingwood supporter, nobody sledges Adam Goodes. Likewise Luke Burt, Hazem El Masri and Alan Tongue.
We admire these guys because they are the only ones who’s unswerving dedication to the team matches that of the fans. We see a bit of ourselves in them. But most of all, we want them to succeed because it reaffirms the romantic narrative of the monogamous sportsman.
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Benji Marshall was never going to be your typical One Club Man.
One Club Men are solid and selfless. They sacrifice everything for the club. They are loyal servants. They put their hand up to sell raffle tickets at the post-match functions when nobody asked.
Benji never fit this mould. Compared to former clubmate and potential One Club Man Robbie Farah, he was too flashy, too brash, too “look at me”. After all, monogamous One Club Men don’t wear a single diamond earring.
And that’s what made the appeal of Benji staying with the Tigers for life so special. His type of player is expected to pull-up stumps at the first sign of trouble and move on to the team offering the most cash. But, and credit to him, for more than a decade he proved the stereotype wrong by staying loyal to Tigers.
If he had managed to keep word, fans would be celebrating his loyalty; not decrying the latest example of a mercenary player looking for the next big pay packet. But you can’t begrudge Marshall in this situation. To finish a career as a One Club Man, you need the support of the club – and the Tigers clearly didn’t want him hanging around.
And the guy needs a job, so it’s unreasonable to think he should deny an income stream by shunning the NRL simply to keep his word.
But none of this makes the situation any less disappointing. When the Tigers play the Dragons in July this year, Wests fans will no doubt turn out in force see the man who for so long captured our hearts and, rather than cheering, they will boo him – simply because he’s wearing different clothes.
By Ben Shine