Sports

Forgot about Marty: The real reason the Highlanders are winning again

While most rugby pundits talk up the return of Waisake Naholo, the true catalyst for the Highlanders’ Super Rugby resurgence flies under the radar, writes Scotty Stevenson.

Highlanders teammates gather around the talismanic Marty Banks for good luck.  (Photo by Simon Watts/Getty Images)

Highlanders teammates gather around Marty Banks, a source of good luck (but bad banter). (Photo by Simon Watts/Getty Images)

In most people’s eyes there was only one star of the show for the Highlanders last weekend in Hamilton, a large Fijian-born winger called Waisake Naholo who returned to action after another layoff due to a broken leg and wreaked merry havoc on the Chiefs’ goal line and their ruck ball. But were we blinded by the light? Does credit for the Highlanders’ most assured performance of the season really deserve to go to someone else?

You’re damn right it does. While the New Zealand rugby public frothed over the return of Naholo (and not without reason, I might add) one Marty Banks, a Reefton native and undisputed champion of terrible banter, also quietly made his return to Super Rugby after a similarly long layoff. Not one pundit or fan gave this revelatory reappearance a second thought. How could this be?

Banks may well be the most talismanic figure in world rugby, albeit one who looks exactly like Screech from Saved By The Bell. Everywhere Banks goes, titles follow. In 2012 he guided his home province Buller to its first ever national championship, setting a new team points record on his way to sharing in the spoils of their first-ever Lochore Cup victory. In 2013, he top scored in the ITM Cup Championship, setting a new Tasman points record as the Makos went on to secure their first-ever national trophy with a 26-25 win over Hawkes Bay. In 2015 he kicked a dropped goal in the dying stages of the Super Rugby final, helping the Highlanders to their first-ever title.

There is a pattern here so obvious that no-one is talking about it. The only New Zealand team he has played for that hasn’t won a title is the Hurricanes. There are two reasons for this: the Hurricanes are cursed, and Banks hardly played a game.

Talk all you want about the Highlanders’ superior control against the Chiefs, or their pin-point aerial masterclass, but let’s be honest, the entire team lifted its game just knowing that Marty Banks was on the bench – none more so than Lima Sopoaga who just knew Banks was waiting to cut his lunch and take his jersey. Lima did the right thing, leaving the field for nine minutes of the first half, just long enough to watch Banks casually slot a goal that in his own words “would have bounced off the upright if it had been given one extra coat of paint”. Always self-deprecating! Marty Banks! What a team man!

Forwards are not immune to Banks’ outsized presence either. Every one of them knows that Banks will play anywhere if it means getting a couple of minutes. How else do you explain Daniel Lienert-Brown’s Banksesque show-and-go try while standing at first receiver, or Dan Pryor’s match-topping 15 tackles. Banks was hovering on the sidelines, whispering sweet nothings in the ear of team manager Moose McLaughlan, just waiting for a chance to play lock.

There is a direct correlation between Banks’ absence and the recent disappearance of the Highlanders’ famed team spirit. Never before has a team relied so much on one man for cheap gags, the kind that settle the nerves and recalibrate a side before battle. Banks has long been the victim of these jokes. As his coach and confidante Tony Brown once said, “All the boys enjoy his company. He tends to take a lot of shit and he tried to give it back but he’s just not as funny as everyone else.”

His Tasman coach, Leon MacDonald says, “He takes a lot of shit, but half the problem is he thinks he’s got great chat.” How can two former All Blacks be wrong? Always the fall guy! Marty Banks! What a team man!

Banks even found the time before the match in Hamilton to share a few quiet words with that other titan of team spirit, Stephen Donald, who when asked how he was going to go running the water for the Chiefs that night remarked, “pretty good I hope, I don’t want to get sacked from this job, too.”

It was just the kind of thing Marty Banks would have said, if he’d thought of it first. Instead he asked if this reporter would be in Dunedin next week, and when the answer was in the affirmative, he replied, “I hope you get dropped and don’t make it.”

Then he went and used up the entire team supply of medical tape and quietly returned to action as the Highlanders quietly returned to form. So you can thank Waisake Naholo for the tries and the turnovers won, and you can thank the coaching staff for the tactical brilliance. But perhaps a nod to the return of Marty Banks is in order – the luckiest of lucky charms who genuinely feels like he’s just lucky to be there.

And who has absolutely no chat.

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