INJURED Wests Tigers superstar Benji Marshall was punched in the head and knocked to the ground in an early morning assault at a North Coast hotel yesterday.
Marshall, who is recovering from a fractured cheekbone, was in the Greenhouse Tavern at Coffs Harbour after watching his brother play in the NSW touch football titles. Marshall did not suffer any injuries.
Two eyewitnesses last night told The Daily Telegraph: the incident happened shortly after midnight. "This guy came over and hit Benji in the face," said one of the onlookers.
He's then ducked for cover but the bloke kept coming and hit him again with a couple of uppercuts. It happened right near the bar.
"People then jumped in. Someone had to help Benji up off the ground.
"The other guy then took off before the security guys came over."
The second witness said: "About six punches were thrown all by the one guy. Benji didn't throw one."
The Daily Telegraph understands Marshall had been talking to a female patron moments before the drama started.
The Wests Tigers initiated an investigation with Marshall and his manager Martin Tauber after being told of the incident by The Daily Telegraph.
After speaking to Marshall, chief executive Steve Noyce confirmed an incident had taken place but denied his star player had been struck in the face.
This contradicts the eye-witness versions from the two patrons.
Noyce has been told a man was evicted from the pub after the fight.
"Benji was given permission to go and watch his younger brother play in Coffs Harbour," he said.
"He was asked to attend the after-match function and wanted to do the right thing so he agreed. During the course of the evening someone was evicted from the function.
"That person thought Benji had played a role in the eviction.
"That was incorrect.
"An incident followed.
"Benji was not hurt or assaulted.
"This is an unfortunate reminder for Benji that with his popularity, even if he has done nothing wrong, people will still look to point the finger."
Noyce said it was "unfair" to claim Marshall should not have been in a pub three days after fracturing his cheekbone.
Greenhouse Tavern owner Anthony Haslam denied any fight occurred.
"There might have been a jealously carry-on thing with a girl tossing ice cubes (at Marshall)," Haslam said.
"He wasn't involved in any fight at all."
Marshall's manager Martin Tauber added: "The bloke took a swing at Benji. Benji said he wasn't stupid enough to retaliate."
Wests Tigers' premiership defence was in tatters on Saturday night when superstar five-eighth Benji Marshall was ruled out for the rest of the NRL season with yet another shoulder injury.
Marshall left the field late in the second half of Penrith's 24-20 win over the Tigers at CUA Stadium and headed immediately for the dressing sheds.
He had awkwardly attempted a tackle on Panthers forward Frank Puletua in the 74th minute and clutched at the shoulder immediately afterwards.
Tigers club doctor Donald Kuah said the shoulder had dislocated but had popped back in without needing to be re-set.
"It went out and back in," Kuah said.
"He'll go in for surgery and usually (there is) a six-month rehab period."
Kuah said Marshall had been been upset, but was becoming used to his now regular shoulder problems.
"We almost expected that at some stage (this season) it might happen," he said.
Asked if there was a chance Marshall's short NRL career could be over, Kuah said: "No, actually none at all. He's like any other player with a shoulder reconstruction, there's about five in most NRL sides."
The recurrence of Marshall's injury is a savage blow to the premiers, who languish outside the top eight with only seven wins from 15 starts in 2006.
After off-season surgery to the same shoulder, Marshall hurt it again in round five before making a quicker-than-expected return for New Zealand in the May 5 test match against Australia.
Penrith also suffered setbacks, losing skipper Tony Puletua to a rib injury in the 26th minute, while Queensland Origin hopeful Rhys Wesser hobbled off in the second half, compounding the Maroons' fullback injury woes.
But Marshall's injury overshadowed everything else that happened on Saturday night, including what was expected to be the main talking point from the match - Craig Gower's last-ditch attempt to convince NSW selectors he should be picked at halfback for State of Origin III.
Still in recovery mode from a knee arthroscopy after an Origin I training mishap, Gower managed to set up the crucial try for his side in what was otherwise a solid but not explosive performance.
His kick in the 74th minute resulted in centre Luke Lewis' match-winning four-pointer after the Tigers had stormed back early in the second half from an 18-8 halftime deficit.
Wests scored two tries in two minutes to grab a 20-18 lead by the 52nd minute.
Ben Galea got the first bizarrely after Panthers five-eighth Preston Campbell belatedly pulled out of taking a bomb, Tigers centre Shane Elford swooping before sending what looked like a forward pass to the tryscorer.
Wests had opened the scoring in just the sixth minute when livewire winger Shannon McDonnell dived on a Brett Hodgson kick out wide.
Penrith hit back soon after the Tigers were penalised for an incorrect play-the-ball, sending the ball wide for centre Danny Galea to swivel out of some ordinary defence from centre Shane Elford and winger Taniela Tuiaki.
Penrith winger Michael Gordon scored in the 33rd, again beating Tuiaki on his way to the corner.
Campbell converted both tries from the sideline before adding a four-pointer of his own.
Talented interchange player Paul Aiton made the bust up the centre of the ruck before offloading to hooker Luke Priddis, Campbell on hand to sprint the final 20m and put the ball down under the sticks.
His conversion made it a commanding 18-4 before the Tigers clawed their way back with a 40th-minute try to bench forward Chris Heighington.
He needs to look at changing his tackling style. He trys to drive in with his shoulder, no need to, all he needs to do is grapple the attacking player to the ground. or defend in the manner that Allen Langer used to. EG - use the attacking players own motion to be bring him down. All is not lost as long as he gets the right advice.
Benji not ready for Test: Sheens
27th April 2008, 17:30 WST
Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens has cast serious doubt over Benji Marshall's fitness and form for next month's Centenary Test despite the New Zealand five-eighth appearing confident he was up for the challenge after making a promising return from injury.
Marshall hobbled on his injured left knee early but went on to show glimpses of his trademark step and zip in attack as the Tigers overcame a sluggish start to beat Cronulla 20-16 at Toyota Stadium.
Sheens praised Marshall's courage in getting through 80 minutes despite "doing it tough" against Sharks duo Paul Gallen and Greg Bird in defence.
But the coach all-but begged Kiwi selectors to give the injury-plagued 23-year-old a break for the May 9 clash with Australia after Marshall last year admitted he came back from a shoulder injury too early to play Test football.
"I think he would have to improve a lot to play for New Zealand based on what I saw today, but that's up to the New Zealand guys," Sheens said.
"He's played 80 minutes and they certainly worked him over, and he still had a bit of spring in his step at the end of the game, but it still wasn't the usually sharp Marshall, no doubt about that.
"I've got concerns about him playing next week (for the Tigers).
"He had some medical treatment at halftime so how he pulls up and how he goes with a short week's preparation to play the Broncos (on Saturday) might be the first question. But that will be a wait and see situation."
After a five-week absence, Marshall was pleased with how he finished the game, but while appearing confident he would be ready to play for the Kiwis, insisted he wouldn't put his hand up if he didn't feel right when the team is announced next Sunday.
"Last year I went into the (Anzac) Test underdone and I know myself I didn't have a good game at all, so I don't want to go in underdone this time," said Marshall.
"If I feel like I'm not at Test level, I'm going to say it. I'll be doing the New Zealand team a favour by pulling myself out if I don't feel right.
"I'll see how I go next week. I was struggling today fitness wise.
"I didn't want to overplay today, I sort of underplayed if anything.
"I just wanted to have a run, just take them on ... it was a good way to finish the game for me. I didn't start too flash. But finishing with a good run and a step, that gives me a bit of confidence."
The win lifted the Tigers to seventh on the ladder, one ahead of the Sharks, who lost their second straight game at home after starting the season with four wins from five away games.
Gold Coast continue to set the pace at the top of the ladder after claiming their sixth win today, 36-24 over the New Zealand Warriors at Skilled Park.
Last year's grand finalists Melbourne and Manly both cemented spots in the top four after strong wins on Saturday night.
The Storm beat North Queensland 12-10 in Townsville while the Sea Eagles came from behind to defeat the Bulldogs 30-22 at Brookvale Oval.
Souths' miserable start to the season continued when the winless Rabbitohs were beaten 32-18 by second-placed Brisbane on Friday.
But fellow strugglers St George Illawarra sprung a major surprise on Anzac Day by upsetting the high-flying Sydney 26-6.
Parramatta, Newcastle, Penrith and Canberra all had the bye in round seven.