I’ll play up front: Barba
Diminutive Canterbury fullback Ben Barba says he’d gladly suit up in the front row if it meant the difference between participating in the 2012 All Stars clash and watching on from the sidelines.
Although delivered tongue in cheek, the dynamic youngster's revelation in an exclusive interview with NRL.com highlights his deep desire to represent his people for a second consecutive year.
Barba was the most devastating attacking force in the NRL in 2011, finishing joint-top of the tryscorer’s list with 23 alongside fellow Indigenous All Stars candidate Nathan Merritt, and rattling off the try of the season with his miraculous last-gasp grounding against the Knights in Round 25.
Also, his blistering speed and uncanny attacking sense helped him tally an NRL-high 30 line-breaks – 11 more than the next best by St George Illawarra centre Matt Cooper.
The 22-year-old had limited game time coming off the bench in his debut for the Indigenous side this year, making just three runs and only 16 metres, but is hopeful of gaining a starting berth next February.
But he knows in order to do that he has to clinch more fan votes than ‘incumbent’ fullback Matthew Bowen – a bittersweet prospect given their long-standing relationship.
“I’ve been a pretty good mate of Mattie since I was a little kid and I can’t speak highly enough of him,” Barba said.
“He was a big help to me last year, him and Preston [Campbell], so hopefully whoever of us wins [the No.1 jersey] the other one can get picked on the bench.
“It doesn’t matter who gets picked – if he is in front of me, I’m happy.”
But Barba looks the frontrunner – with voting set to close on November 28 the current tally sees him narrowly ahead of Bowen in the race for the prized No.1 jersey.
Barba admitted the prospect of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Johnathan Thurston left him in awe of his big-name team-mates in the lead-up to this year’s clash but added he desperately wanted the chance to show his true worth this year.
“When I played last year I was a bit starstruck for the first few days knowing I was going to play with the likes of Johnno and Scotty Prince and Willie Tonga – they are the guys I grew up watching when I was in high school, so if I get a chance to do it again it will be a big privilege.”
Despite his whirlwind year in the NRL Barba is focusing on improving key areas of his game over the off-season.
“There is a lot I need to work on, being my first year in fullback,” he said. “Obviously I want to work on my catching and just getting that little bit more fearless, so I can sort of roam around a little bit more on the field.”
Q: How does the All Stars game compare to playing for your club?
A: I guess it means a little bit more because you are not only playing for yourself but you are playing for your people – the Indigenous people of Australia – so I believe it means a bit more to me… and I’m pretty sure it does to all other Indigenous players that take part.
Q: What is your cultural heritage?
A: I am Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander; there is a bit of both from my mum and dad.
Q: Are you still quite close with your culture?
A: Yes. I recently went up to the Torres Strait to play some footy up there for my home island. It was good to get back and meet some family I’ve never met.
Q: What are your goals for your second year in the Indigenous All Stars if you make the side?
A: Maybe just the chance to win – we lost last year, so hopefully if I get picked we can get away with a win and beat the [NRL] All Stars.
Q: Your broken-play running seems so easy… do you see those areas open up for you in a split second?
A: Nah! I don’t know what it is… I’m sure if I knew what it is I would try to do a little bit more! I guess it is just a spur-of-the-moment thing and I just try and make the most of my opportunities and try and finish them off.
Q: Would you be happy with Johnathan Thurston at five eighth?
A: Yeah I am pretty sure he will get the slot; he is the captain, so he is an automatic selection. If I get the chance to play with some of the best Indigenous players in the game it is a big privilege.
Q: Who would be some of your top picks?
A: Greg Inglis is definitely up there – he was picked last year but didn’t get the chance [through injury]. Sammy Thaiday, and then Johnno, and then Princey and blokes like that.
Q: Voting closes for the Indigenous All Stars on the 28th of November, so only a few weeks to go for all the fans; what would your advice be when they pick their sides?
A: Oh hopefully just to pick me and put me in their side somewhere! I don’t care if it is the front row – it’s a great experience, it’s a great week up there. You get to get in amongst your people and you can just feel the vibe of the game. So yeah, just vote for me!