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?There are languages other than words, numbers, symbols or nature. There are languages of the body. And prizefighting is one of them. There is no attempting to comprehend a prizefighter unless we are willing to recognise that he speaks with a command of the body which is as detached, subtle and comprehensive in its intelligence as any exercise of mind by such social engineers as Herman Kahn or Henry Kissinger?
The above quote was written by Norman Mailer, in one of his lyrical treatises on the great Muhammad Ali. The quote?s significance to the game of rugby league is clear: both sports call on similar requirements of the human body. Like boxing, rugby league is a dialogue between bodies; a rapid debate between two sets of intelligence. They take place rapidly because they are conducted with the body rather than the mind. If this seems extreme, let us look for a connection. Picasso could never do arithmetic when he was young because the number seven looked to him like a nose upside down. So to learn maths would slow him up. He was a painter ? his intelligence resided somewhere in the co-ordination of the body and the mind. He was not going to cut off his body from his mind by learning numbers. Most of us do - the true artists don?t. That is why whenever I watch Benji Marshall play, I think of Norman Mailer?s quote. Benji is the Picasso of rugby league.
There is another famous story about Picasso. He showed remarkable artistic talent as a child, so much so that when his father saw his work he handed him his own palette and brushes and vowed never to paint again. You can imagine Benji in the backyard with his father or uncle, sidestepping and bedazzling his way around them with arrogant ease, ridiculing them to such an extent that they give him the football and return to the house for good. Rather than dwell in self-consciousness after such a feat, Benji would be stimulated to further explore his artistry.
Hence his long career in touch football. Far from a conventional breeding ground for budding rugby league superstars, for Benji it was the perfect avenue for his talent to blossom, and his refined artistic style to emerge. He was still living at home, still doing his schoolwork like a regular teenager. This can be considered Benji?s version of Picasso?s ?Blue Period?, when Picasso first settled in Paris in 1904. The subjects of his paintings at the time were depicted with a slightly sentimental sadness in cold blue. The subdued mood of his art during this period reflected the poverty of the artist?s life, when he was sharing a studio with a poet friend, taking it in turns to sleep in the single bed and even burning drawings for warmth.
Then Benji snared a juicy scholarship with the Wests Tigers, and was soon playing first grade rugby league in the greatest competition on Earth. Even at this early stage of his big-time career he was wowing crowds, and was earmarked as a potential superstar. The money was already rolling in. This was his ?Rose Period?. Picasso?s blue tones were replaced by pink ones, depicting his subjects in a more positive way. The lighter mood struck a sympathetic note with the public too: the Rose Period pictures sold well, and soon Picasso?s days of poverty were over.
Picasso?s masterpiece was his 1907 Les Demoiselles d?Avignon. He had been exploring another way forward in art, analysing form and distorting conventional perspective. This painting of five savage, fragmented figures in a brothel heralded the end of the notion that painting had to be a literal transcription of reality.
Benji Marshall?s masterpiece was the 2005 finals series. His influence over each game in the series was as significant as it was marvellously inventive. The features were effortlessly slicing up the Cowboys in week one, saving two tries and scoring another in week two, splitting open the Dragons with consummate ease in the classic preliminary final, and upstaging the grand final event with an outrageous flick pass as the Tigers won the big prize. The performance of Benji and his Tigers heralded the end of the notion that to win the NRL competition you need a team of giant representative players.
Picasso?s legacy was the art movement known as Cubism. Let?s hope that Benji?s legacy be returning rugby league to a game centred on skill, artistic abandon and vivacious intelligence.
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