Rhys Marshall brings value to Munster on and off the pitch
‘It doesn’t get much bigger than a home game against Toulon’ says New Zealand-born hooker
Munster’s Rhys Marshall scores a try despite the efforts of Luke Hamilton of Leicester Tigers. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Rhys Marshall has usually had to punch above his weight. When first called into the New Zealand Under-20 squad he was a little hooker, “90 kilos when dripping wet if I was lucky”, as he says himself.
There were five hookers in the squad and he knew he was fifth choice. He recalls one of the coaches saying: “How do you expect to make this team at this weight?” Marshall took that personally. For the next four months there was no booze, only healthy food and plenty of it.
Working on a sheep station in Hawkes’ Bay and playing for the nearby Ongatiko club, Marshall augmented Tuesday and Thursday evening sessions with nightly gym workouts.
“We didn’t get paid a lot but the whole lot would go into my snacks, which was tuna, cream rice, these big bars. I’d eat them in the saddle. I’d turn up to breakfast feeling ill, and that’s where my bad relationship with food started. I don’t eat a lot now, and I struggle to keep my weight.”
He overdid it, and spent two weeks in hospital.
“I was diagnosed with exhaustion and blood poisoning. My body just said ‘I’ve had enough’ of training and eating’.”
Marshall was forced to watch the second trial from the sidelines, before he got himself back up to 107 kilos.
“In the final trial, the hooker broke his foot. He was a fantastic player. If I’m honest it was probably the major reason why my career kicked on. I was fighting it out for third and fourth and then they selected me, and again, if I’m honest, I balled my eyes out, because I had done all this work.”
New Zealand were beaten in the semi-finals of the Junior World Championships in 2012 by the hosts South Africa, whereupon Marshall was signed by the Chiefs.
As he talks in Munster’s High Performance Centre, Marshall is interrupted when Jack O’Donoghue and Andrew Conway walk by. “I’m a shepherd,” says the former, mimicking and chiding Marshall.
“Sorry, what do you do?” responds Marshall, good-naturedly. “Sorry, what’s your back story?”
It’s an intriguing back story too, and one Marshal reveals candidly. The interview flies by, and it’s clear he brings real value to Munster off the pitch as well as on it. A hard worker himself – his dad has a beef and sheep farm of around 500 acres not far from New Plymouth – it’s clear too that Marshall is also a good fit.
Marshall reckons he was four when he first began playing barefoot in his local club, Clifton. “Granddad [Les] and Dad [Ian] both played for Taranaki, and so did my uncle [Don].”
Grandad was a lock, Ian an eight and Don, like Marshall, a hooker.
“Dad and I played together, a couple of times for Tainui. It’s real heartland rugby. I would have been 14 and Dad would have been about 40-something. It was great fun and you play with your cousins and your uncle. You look back on those days and you wish you could do it a lot more.”
His dad played occasionally after retiring with shoulder problems, and coached a local side, Inglewood, just outside New Plymouth, where he used to play, as did Chris Masoe, and Marshall was a ball boy.
“Rugby has always been a part of my family. Both my sisters [Trea and Alice] played right through school.”
Alice stopped playing when she suffered concussion.
“It’s actually a scary element of what we do. It’s the game we love but it’s got such a significant impact if things do go wrong. I’ve seen guys who get a knock and they came back the following week and you don’t say anything. But now with the veil being lifted a bit, lads being a bit more cautious about it, hopefully we can lessen the impact of concussion.”
He cites the example of Craig Clarke, the Chiefs’ Super Rugby-winning captain who retired prematurely when with Connacht, and likewise another ex-Taranaki and Chiefs player, the prop Shane Cleaver. Both are back farming.
“They’ve worked themselves back into a healthy state of mind.”
Marshall has had two concussions himself, the first in the Chiefs’ 40-7 win over Wales in 2016.
“I got into the changing room at half-time and everything was spinning and I was sick. I spent four or five weeks not playing with symptoms.”
He suffered another in the December home win over Leicester, and spent three weeks on the sidelines.
“It’s a great protocol and it will probably improve. So will knowledge of concussion. You don’t go out on the piss if you’ve had a knock. It’s just awareness, and if you’re not feeling right on the field then you rely on yourself and your mates. Against Leicester, Billy Holland scragged me by the neck and said: ‘Hey, you’re not right, get off the pitch’. And sure enough I wasn’t right.”
When Alice was forced to stop playing, Marshall was at New Plymouth Boys High School, alma mater of Graham Mourie, Carl Hayman and Irish scrum coach Greg Feek. Its famed ground, the Gully, is an amphitheatre which was dug out by school students after the first World War.
“I wanted to go to the local high school, but Dad said: ‘Hold on, you’re granddad went to Boys High, I went to the local school and I was a little s***, so I’m going to send you to Boys High. I listened to Dad’s advice and it was a great five years.”
Marshall was one of about 200 boarders in a school of roughly 1300.
“I give my parents a hard time about being away from home since I was 13, but I was only 40 minutes out of town. I’d shoot home at the weekends to the farm, so it was perfect.”
After leaving school, Marshall went across to Hawkes’ Bay to work on a sheep station with 28,000 sheep, give or take, and “with some of my best mates. You work with them every day; there are no teachers to stop you having fights; you’re 18 so you can have a beer, but you soon learn that if you have too many beers it’s going to catch up with you”.
They made up the Ongatiko Under-20 squad, which won the Hawkes Bay title for the first time in yonks.
“We worked bloody hard and we played bloody hard too. We had a few beers after a game on Saturday and for me it was the great escape from school.”
Monday to Friday were long, hard days. He recalls one of his team accidentally burning down one of the back huts by leaving a candle on.
“The next day he had to stay back and fix the hut, so we had to pick up his work. It was one of the longest days I can remember because we had to cover for him. When we got home everyone was mounting up to come look for us.”
Marshall recounts “the shearing, and the shovelling shit, and cleaning”. There were 22 in a single floor house, with two beds per room.
“I went straight into Super Rugby after that and thought it was a breeze!”
The Chiefs had signed him after that 2012 Under-20 World Cup, although he admits he wasn’t prepared for Super Rugby.
“I didn’t mind the work, loved the work, but it was the technical stuff, especially around my throwing. I was poor at asking for help, because that’s not what we do. It’s a macho thing, and to think back on it now, it infuriates me. It absolutely infuriates me.
“But hey, I eventually reached out, got myself a psychologist, a throwing coach, and a little support group that literally took everything back to basics. Then I tracked on well and threw well. I was happy and everything was going well and then comes the bombshell, the Chiefs just don’t want you anymore.”
He was prepared to continue playing with Taranaki, “because that’s where my heart is”, do his studies and become a bank manager or something.
“Well, that was the plan. A couple of offers came up from France but the passion wasn’t there, and if I was going to go anywhere it would have to have a bit of local passion about it. Then Munster came up and it was a no-brainer.”
It revived memories of watching that epic Munster-All Blacks game in November 2008, and Hika Elliot’s debut.
“It was by far the hardest All Black debut, throwing in to that lineout against Munster. I thought about being involved with a team like that. It’s a team made of workmen and that’s something I think I can relate to. You get here, and you’re not ready for your Peter O’Mahonys and Steven Archers and Donncha Ryans, who just don’t go away on the fitness and don’t stop. But that’s what it is. It’s a team that will not die and it’s a club who will facilitate that, and I love it.”
“I used to love going home and playing for my province (Taranaki) because it’s easier to wear your heart on your sleeve and go out there and bash anyone that stands in your way. I wouldn’t say I’m definitely part of the furniture here but I feel like as long as I keep getting in battles and keep trying my hardest no one is going to judge me. I’m going to get feedback. I’m not going to always make the team but I’m always going to have my mates around me that are going to keep doing it as well. For me that’s very cool.”
His Granddad used to talk about Munster as they flicked through his rugby memorabilia.
“He kept pointing out Munster. He said ‘these guys are European Champions’ and he talked about their games against all the touring sides. ‘The meat and potatoes of Irish rugby’, as Granddad used to call them, and they are. Munster rugby is the meat and potatoes of Irish rugby.”
“You see CJ, Pete and the boys, and Earlsy coming back after winning a Grand Slam. Earlsy is a man who is Munster and you’ve so many of those guys here, it’s inspiring.”
He will become eligible to play for Ireland in November 2019 but says:
“I’ve got to do right by Munster and hopefully one day I’ll do right by Ireland. But first things first. For me priorities are here.”
That continues today. “It doesn’t get much bigger than a home game versus Toulon. It’s going to be some weekend.”
All the more so at Thomond Park.
“It still gives me goose bumps when you walk out there. I was even just thinking about 2008. I watched that game and I was in awe of the place. Then you actually get to play in it and experience it. It’s a whole other level.”