NRL All Stars team bolter Ben Hornby has rugby league fans to thank for his shock inclusion as one of Wayne Bennett’s two coach’s selections for this year’s blockbuster clash – after they originally overlooked him in the two-stage voting process.
Bennett had no hesitation in recalling the Dragons captain and halfback to the representative arena after more than 16,000 fans flooded the NRL All Stars’ interchange bench with specialist forwards, prompting Bennett to call on the versatile Hornby, plus the Panthers’ Luke Lewis, to bolster his 20-strong squad’s playmaking ranks.
Hornby, chosen outside of the 48 players who remained after Stage Two of voting closed at midnight on Wednesday, says he’s over the moon at reuniting with his former coach after the duo combined to guide St George Illawarra to a premiership win in 2010.
“It’s obviously a pretty big privilege for me,” he told NRL.com. “I think I probably wouldn’t have got voted in getting towards the end of my career, so for Wayne to pick me is a huge honour for me and I’m looking forward to it.
“There are a lot of forwards on the bench so if we get an injury to a back we wouldn’t have any cover, so I think that’s what Wayne had in mind… I’m sure I’ll come on there at some stage and play in the back somewhere,” he said.
Hornby’s representative days had taken a back foot after playing for Australia, Country and three State of Origins between 2004 and 2008, but after admitting he thought his rep days were near over he says he’s looking forward to adding the All Stars to his list of achievements.
“Any time you get a chance to play with the best players in the world it obviously gives you a boost of confidence if you can do well,” he said.
“I think at the end of your career you look back and look at some of the teams you played in and the players you played with and you look back with fond memories and I’m sure this is going to be another chapter in that book for me.”
He joins Dragons team-mate Jason Nightingale who he says will be a valuable strike weapon on the wing for the NRL All Stars.
“Jase has obviously been a great player for [the Dragons] for a couple of years, he probably doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves but the last couple of years he’s been getting it,” he said. “He’ll do a great job for us.”
Now in his 13th season in the NRL, Hornby brings a lot of experience to the side but isn’t shy to admit he’s looking to learn from some of the superstars in the squad.
“I played with Cameron (Smith) before I think in ’06… but Benji I obviously never get a chance to play with, so I’m really looking forward to it and hope I can learn something off him as well,” he said.
On the club front, Hornby says pre-season has been positive under new coach Steve Price.
“It’s been going great. It’s been a really smooth transition for us,” he continued. “I think Wayne put a lot of good things in place and we’re doing a lot of those things as well but Steve’s come in and wants to do things a little bit different.”
“It’s been pretty similar to what we’ve been doing in the past, just little tweaks on everything we’ve done.
“I think at this time of year it’s more about getting fit but I think in the next coming weeks and as we get into the trials you might see a little bit different attack from us.”
Price announced at yesterday’s Charity Shield launch that fullback Kyle Stanley would have the chance to prove himself as custodian during pre-season trials, replacing Test representative and 2010 Dally M Fullback of the Year Darius Boyd – although Hornby said the centre position left vacant by Mark Gasnier’s retirement was still up in the air.
“Centre is still up for grabs so at this stage it’s going to be who is fit and who’s playing best in their trials,” he said. “At this stage it’s hard to tell.”
The Dragons have some outstanding young talent coming through the ranks according to Hornby, who is particularly excited to see what 2011 Toyota Cup Player of the Year Jack De Belin can bring to the St George Illawarra table.
“[We have] high hopes for him,” he enthused. “Sometimes it’s a big step from the under-20s to first grade but we think Jack is well prepared to do that.”
After off-season ankle surgery Hornby is ready to make his All Stars debut and take on the Indigenous All Stars at Skilled Park on the Gold Coast on February 4.
“The off-season hasn’t been too bad to me,” he said. “I haven’t had to run too much so I’m sure if it keeps up that I’ll be able to keep playing.”
The soon-to-be 32-year-old will focus on remaining injury-free for the Dragons in 2012 and is content with the thought of possibly seeing out his career as a one-club man.
“I think at this stage it looks like I’m going to be able to do that so that’s something I’m very proud of,” he said.
“It’s a great club to be a part of and I’ve just played my part along the way.”