His international stint was short, only three years, including a perfect Six Nations campaign. But around this time, he managed to fit in with more than most leaders in a career.
Marsh played every minute of the 2002 French Grand Slam, the first of the Six Nations era. The center was later diagnosed with testicular cancer – initially having to deny doping allegations before the disease was revealed – and underwent chemotherapy in time to campaign for the 2003 World Cup in France.
At the end of 2004, when he had again overcome injury to earn a test recall, Marsh retired from international rugby, rightly against New Zealand, the country of his birth.
He arrived in France in 1998 with no ambition to play international rugby, but just in the hope of experiencing a different culture with ASM Clermont.
In fact, after playing for New Zealand A, he wasn’t even sure he was eligible. But in 2001 it became clear that he could play for France and he was called up by Bernard Laporte.
There was controversy over calling a Kiwi, and even Marsh felt pressure to justify his selection. It turned out that it didn’t take long as France racked up the wins with the Rotorua-born center in midfield.
He remembers: “I entered the France team at an interesting time, Bernard Laporte had entered as a coach and wanted to change things a bit. A lot of older players have gone and he brought in a new breed of young players and he introduced a style of rugby that the French were not used in some ways to play.
“He brought a certain structure and a certain discipline, so it was interesting moments in this France team. With these young players, you also had a lot of experience. You had Rafa Ibanez, Fabien Pelous, Olivier Magne, Serge Betsen, these guys who had been in the fray for quite a long time, and then there were the younger, fresher guys who had a lot of talent. But he changed the way we play with a lot more structure.
“When I made my debut I think we won our first eight games. It really helped that it was an environment that was reasonably successful so we were winning so it helped me a lot and for the France team to justify my selection.
START OF A DREAM
After three wins in the fall, including a 14-13 victory over world champion Australia, where Marsh scored the only try, France qualified for the 2002 championship as a contender.
England, having narrowly missed the Grand Slam in each of the previous three seasons, were unquestionably the favorites, with the teams set to meet in the third set.
Despite all the structure and discipline that Laporte brought, some aspects of their preparation seemed to belong to an earlier era.
As Marsh explains: “We were training at Chateau Ricard which was near Clairefontaine where the French football team was. During this entire Six Nations, we have only trained on a rugby pitch two or three times.
“Normally, we trained on the village soccer field or we would go to Clairefontaine and play there on the soccer fields. So the only times we trained on a rugby pitch was when we left, so in Scotland or Wales when our team raced. When I tell people now, they laugh, but it was like that then.
France had opened their campaign against Italy, with a now legendary half-time speech from Laporte inspiring a second-half performance that made up for the bland first 40 minutes in a 33-12 success.
Marsh then scored two tries in a thrilling 37-33 win at Cardiff ahead of The Crunch. England, who had just won victories over Scotland and Ireland, were an overwhelming favorite.
But while many remember this game as the day Serge Betsen stalked Jonny Wilkinson during the 75 minutes he was on the pitch, Marsh’s memory is more of an all-out performance.
He recalls: “If I’m being honest the game that stands out above all is the English game. At the time, England were considered the best team in the world and the team that won the World Cup. But I think when the French play against the English there’s a lift in their game or something else that comes along. Being a foreigner, so to speak, seeing him was really different. See them motivate themselves. That day you could feel the team lifted a few more notches during the game.
“It was a fun game because we had been training really well all week. And then when we got out on the pitch, the first 40 minutes felt like a practice race. Everything we did went, it went really well. It was not easy but everything went as planned. I think Jason Robinson scored before half-time which changed things a bit, but as far as the game goes, especially the first 40 minutes, I felt we were in control.
France missed 20-15 winners, but that score didn’t do justice to how convincing the victory was, Ben Cohen’s belated attempt to save some pride for the visitors.
TIGHTEN THE SLAM
Marsh grabbed a second Scotland campaign brace in a 22-10 win, but a calf injury in preparation for the game against Ireland threatened to curtail his campaign.
In fact, Marsh was never going to miss this game and in sunny Paris France were at their best, with 44-5 winners.
“It wasn’t really until that last game, towards the end, that it sank into the fact that we were going to do the Grand Slam. Winning the Six Nations is one thing, but finishing the Grand Slam is another thing and being a part of it was pretty special.
“Bernard had analyzed the Irish team very well, we introduced new games and a new structure around the game and how we wanted to play it. We scored some very good tries that day. So even at halftime I wouldn’t say it was in the bag, but we had a reasonable lead, around 30 points. We were on a bit of a roll at the time. We were a pretty well-trained team and a lot of the things we did came to fruition. And so we were sure that by then we could probably beat anyone that day.
With eight wins in as many tests, Marsh couldn’t have hoped for a better start to his international career.
The big interview: Olivier Magne
By the 2003 championship however, he had rather bigger concerns. Routine checks in Clermont had shown unusual hormone levels, so much so that Marsh had to explain himself to management.
He said, “It was kind of funny because initially we had check-ups every three months and blood tests and so on. I had a few blood tests that weren’t correct. They weren’t right because it changed my hormone level, so I was taken to the principal’s and president’s office and asked if I was on drugs. This was obviously a major concern.
“They took me for further testing and only then did they realize I might have a problem. So I ended up going to Paris, I was diagnosed with a tumor. And then we took it off and had six weeks of chemotherapy.
“The most important thing is that I got it early on and I always knew I was fine. The fact that I was in France in some ways made it easier. When you are diagnosed with cancer there is potentially a lot of negativity around it and people worry about you, whether it is your family or friends, that’s understandable. But I didn’t have to face that, I just wanted to go on and do my treatment and focus on rugby.
“So I started my chemotherapy in March and had six weeks, then I went to a World Cup in September, six months later. My training was definitely affected. I had trained well, but just before we started our two month prep I tore a calf and missed six weeks of training camp.
“I discussed my withdrawal with the doctor, but decided to persist and ended up on Australian soil. I had some issues with my Achilles playing and being on fire. By the end of the World Cup six weeks later, I had difficulty walking, let alone running. Looking back I probably shouldn’t have gone to this World Cup and especially towards the later stages it had an impact on my game. Overall you are in a World Cup rugby competition and you are not able to play at your peak, it is a little disappointing.
FRIENDSHIP WITH IBANEZ
After quitting his playing career in 2007, Marsh returned to New Zealand and now works in real estate on the North Island.
But while the jet lag means he’s struggling to catch many of the current French squad’s exploits, he still played his part in the team’s development thanks to an opportunity for the former and current teammate. manager of the France team Raphaël Ibanez.
He explains: “Rafa reached out, it must have been in 2019. He wanted experience in New Zealand. He had finished his stint in Bordeaux and he wanted to take a break and just do something different.
“Leon Holden, who played at Wasps, and I put him in touch with Thames Valley which is a third division team that plays in the Heartland competition.
“It was quite interesting because I have met Rafa on several occasions. I think he had the full experience. He ended up in Coromandel in a small town called Whangamata which is a vacation spot. It’s a great place, the people are really nice and he and his family have really integrated into this small town. Besides rugby, Rafa is an avid surfer, he’s a keen fisherman and hunter, so he’s been a part of that as well, which I think he really enjoyed.
“He told me about the differences in rugby and a lot of it was based on culture. He would certainly have thought a lot about what he could take with him and where he thought he could change things and improve things in this French environment. I don’t know if that’s potentially what he’s taken on, but the last few years you’ve seen a huge change in this France team, the way they play and the camaraderie and they get the results. There has been a huge change which, for someone like me, is really nice to see.
“It seems that with Fabien Galthié and Rafa at the helm, they have created a certain consistency, they are playing good rugby and getting the results they should have been getting for some time.
“It’s no surprise that the guys started their coaching careers. You can probably say that they both had mixed coaching careers at club level, but they obviously found their rhythm in this French environment and got started, so I’m really happy with them.
Indeed, they are, and just like when Marsh was in his prime in the heart of the Blues midfielder, it seems we’ve once again reached a point where that dreaded cliché no longer applies.