Even before he’s taken charge of his first game as Saints Head Coach Justin Holbrook has made a huge statement of intent with the barely believable capture of Ben Barba on a two-and-a-half-year deal.
It is no exaggeration to say that Barba is a truly world class player, winner of the Dally M in the NRL in 2012 and a star of Cronulla Sharks’ Grand Final success of last year. So just how has he ended up in Super League, and at Saints, a place where recent signings have been on shall we say a somewhat different level?
Well a 12-game NRL ban for cocaine use is certainly a factor. Barba’s initial response to this was to sign a deal to play rugby union with Toulon but just a few months into that agreement he has taken the opportunity to find his way back to rugby league. Now, there’s an alarm bell ringing straight away there, isn’t there? If he has only lasted four months in rugby union what makes us think that he is going to last any longer than that in England? We have seen before with Chris Sandow at Warrington, James Segeyaro at Leeds and recently Mahe Fonua at Hull FC that some players are not backwards at coming forwards if they want to get out of a contract. Powerless, the clubs involved release the players. To hold on to them only means having an unhappy player counting on the salary cap. There is a significant risk of this with Barba but at least the length of the contract should ensure that Saints receive a whopping transfer fee should the worst happen.
There is no doubt that his ultimate ambition is to get back into the NRL. It’s the best rugby competition in the world of either code in the humble opinion of this wordy chancer and the kind of stage that a talent like Barba deserves. To get back there Barba needs to be playing rugby league and proving once again that his off-field troubles are a mere bump in the road and that he still has what it takes to play at the top level. At only 27 years old, he is still young enough to give a sizeable chunk of his time to Saints before taking up one of the many opportunities that will come his way in Australia.
His deal with Saints runs up until the end of 2019. If he can give the club two and a half seasons of his very best form he will have gone a long way to transforming what has become one of the most average and plodding sides in Super League. There are hurdles to overcome. The 12-game ban is an obvious issue, with the argument raging about whether it should be served here in England or deferred until such time as he returns to the NRL. If he serves it now that would be bad news for Saints, not only because it would delay his debut to some time around the middle of August, but also because it would make it easier for him to walk away from the club having played just a few meaningless games at the end of an already dead season. Remember Sandow, Segeyaro and Fonua? However, the wording of the ban when it was imposed by NRL authorities states that he should serve it once he has finished his overseas commitments. That of course referred to his time in France and rugby union. Clearly they did not want him sitting the ban out in another sport in another country before being free to return to the NRL. Yet they reckoned without the possibility of him signing for a Super League club, as we all did, at least before the marquee rule was tweaked to allow a second player to make use of the rule.
That debate will rumble on and at the time of writing it is believed that Saints are set to appeal the RFL’s initial stance that the ban should apply straight away. Yet however this works out Saints have shown that they are once again a club with the kind of ambition to get back to the top of the rugby league tree in the UK. If we can get Barba on board then why should we ever again have to suffer the kind of recruitment disasters which have led us to this grisly place, a place where a squabble for a top eight spot preoccupies us more than any thoughts of playoffs and Grand Finals? Which players performing in Super League now would not want the opportunity to play alongside a player of the calibre of Barba. His is a signing which instantly raises the pulling power of the club to a level it has not seen in recent years. There are no more excuses now for Saints in terms of squad building. They have set the bar very high in this new regime.
Holbrook has also shown his ambition with the arrival of Barba, and the fact that the two worked together previously at Canterbury is encouraging. He will have a good understanding of Barba personally, of his character and personality. If he is prepared to take this gamble then you would have to say that he must have enough faith in Barba to believe that he will make a worthwhile contribution to the Saints cause. Now I could be a cynic at this point and suggest that Holbrook is just as keen to get back to the NRL as Barba probably is, and that the pair could shine in the shop window for a short spell before disappearing together hand in hand into the Aussie sunset. But surely even that eventuality would take at least 18 months to unfold. Surely no NRL club is going to sign Barba or appoint Holbrook on the strength of half a season in what they already view as an inferior competition?
If Saints can get even one full season out of Barba he could have the impact that Mal Meninga had back in the 1980’s. He’s a fullback as opposed to the centre that Meninga was, but is a world class act just as the Australian Test coach was. If Barba sees out his contract then we are in some kind of ludicrous rugby league fantasy, a dreamworld. Meninga is one thing, but if Barba stays here until the end of 2019 as has been agreed it could be the second coming of Jamie Lyon in terms of the impact on the team.
It’s a gamble alright, but for the moment at least we all live in a Barba Wonderland.