A former butcher, Justin Marshall carved up many a defence for New Zealand in the first decade of professionalism. He is one of the greatest scrum-halves to play the game

Major teams: Canterbury, Crusaders, Leeds, Ospreys, Montpellier, Saracens
Test span: 1995-2005
Test caps: 81 (74 starts)
Test points: 120 (24T)

Rugby’s Greatest: Justin Marshall

France, at the old Parc des Princes, is nobody’s idea of an easy Test debut. However, Laurie Mains had a clear motive for giving Justin Marshall his All Blacks bow there on the 1995 European tour. “The French were really aggressive in the rucks and mauls,” the coach said, “and we needed Justin’s ruggedness.”

There are more skilful players in our scrum-halves list than Marshall but no one more competitive and ready to scrap than the small-town boy from Mataura, near Invercargill. He became New Zealand’s most-capped No 9, until being overtaken by Aaron Smith.

Beginning working life as a butcher in a freezing works, Marshall showed an impeccable sense of timing because All Blacks incumbents Graeme Bachop and Ant Strachan both left for Japan in 1995 – opening the door for Marshall at the start of the pro era.

justin Marshall coaching in 2017

College of knowledge: at a coaching session with Mount Albert Grammar school in 2017 (Getty Images)

His physicality and explosive speed around the fringes, where he liked to use players around him to manipulate the defence, made him an instant fit in an All Black team that dominated world rugby in the late Nineties.

As impressive as anything was his organising and communication. Aussie McLean, his coach at Canterbury, once said: “People just don’t realise the influence he has out there. He runs everything on defence.”

Marshall played 23 consecutive Tests from his Paris debut – losing just once – until a snapped Achilles interrupted the run. As an insatiable trainer, he was back in action two months ahead of schedule.

Marshall didn’t have selection all his own way, being ousted by Byron Kelleher for the RWC 1999 semi-final. Responding to criticism that his pass was too slow, Marshall points to the speed with which he got the ball away from the breakdown. Certainly his long-time half-back partner, Andrew Mehrtens, never looked short of time.

Appointed New Zealand captain in 1997 at the end of the Sean Fitzpatrick reign, Marshall soon lost the job for upsetting a referee. But he went on starring for his country until 2005, beating the British & Irish Lions and finishing with 24 Test tries before embarking on a lucrative swansong in European club rugby.

Now a much-respected analyst for Sky Sports, Marshall was neatly summed up by his wife Nicolle: “He’s an exclamation mark, not a comma.”

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