Barba heroics masked personal demons
Watch highlights of the 2013 Rugby League All Stars game above and see if you can spot it.
Splashed across the cover of the official match program of the February 9 clash, rugby league's latest poster boy - reigning Dally M player of the year Ben Barba - took just 10 minutes to pick up where he'd left off in 2012.
Following on from a Johnathan Thurston grubber kick that deflected off the leg of Greg Inglis, Barba scored the first try of the game and was instantly mobbed by his teammates.
By the 31st minute of the first half he had become the first player to score three tries in an All Stars game and would later be named man of the match by popular vote.
He was idolised by every kid kicking a Steeden and touted as an Origin player but behind the million-dollar smile and widespread adoration, off the field Barba was being engulfed in a personal crisis that was about to rock the rugby league world.
Weeks after that memorable night at Suncorp Stadium in front of more than 41,000 people, Barba was stood down from all duties at the Bulldogs and two years on we await the re-emergence of a blazing talent that was all but extinguished as quickly as it was brought to life.
"After that game it sort of went downhill for me and who knows what could have happened if things were different," Barba explained ahead of his return to the All Stars arena on Friday night.
"I'm trying to now put that in the past. It's been two years now and I'm now back at Cronulla and back in Sydney. It's like a breath of fresh air for me, I'm enjoying my footy again and I'm smiling.
"[The 2013 All Stars game] wasn't too much of a high because at the time I was struggling with some stuff and the footy was just masking what was really going on in my life.
"I was happy to be playing the game with all the lads, Johno, 'Hodgy', 'GI' and all that and I was happy with the performance that I put in that night because it was the first time we had won in a while but it was probably masking what followed on a few weeks later."
As he is this week, Laurie Daley was coach of the Indigenous All Stars team two years ago and told NRL.com that he had no sense of what was going on in Barba's life off the field as he continued to delight fans on it.
"No I didn't [know], I think it caught everyone by surprise, it certainly caught me by surprise," Daley said.
"When it first happened I just sent him a message and stuff like that but other than that just seeing him when you get around. You don't want to be bombarding them with things. You just let them go and then have a yarn to them when you see them."
Somewhat ironically, as Barba returned to his family of "brothers" in Indigenous camp on the Gold Coast this week, his partner, Ainslie Currie and their three children moved back to Sydney to begin their new life in Cronulla just 18 months after moving to Brisbane.
The other significant change in Barba's life is his continued transition from the most electrifying fullback in the game to an NRL five-eighth, a position he played for the Broncos in the final nine games of the season last year.
He received positive reports for his performance for the Sharks in limited game-time against the Sea Eagles in last weekend's trial and believes with the quality of players who will surround him on Friday night that it is the perfect opportunity to wind back the clock and uncork some vintage Barba magic.
"With 'Johno' (Johnathan Thurston) being the halfback and the guys I'll have inside and outside of me, they're all playing for Queensland so if there's any chance to prove that I'm getting back to that form again, it's on Friday," said the 25-year-old who has played in every All Stars game since 2011.
"I copped a bit of traffic in defence [against Manly] and I was happy with it; it didn't phase me one bit at all. I'm enjoying my role at the Sharks and I'm sure I'll do the same on Friday.
"It's no secret that most teams target the edges of teams and I had to get used to the defence again. It was a lot easier making five tackles at the back than to making 20 in a game."
Daley says that the defensive workload and the toll it will take on Barba's decision-making under fatigue will be the greatest challenge facing the mercurial talent but, more than anything, he is happy to simply see him smiling again.
"He looks like he's enjoying his time at the moment and that he is enjoying his time at Cronulla," Daley said.
"He's laughing and having a good time and he's got that smile back on his face so that's a positive sign."
Adds Barba: "Words can't describe it for me. It's a chance for me to represent my people and play with all the people that I call brothers. I can't wait for this week and sometimes I wish it would never end after the game, it means that much to me."
And perhaps exactly the type of game he needs to reignite a potentially brilliant career.
Tickets are available for the Harvey Norman Rugby League All Stars at ticketek.com.au/allstars