Sharks utility Ben Barba is fully fit for the first time in a couple of seasons and has declared he has fallen back in love with football, while his coach has revealed he isn't even considering last year's super-sub for a bench role in 2016.
Barba had an unhappy time of things in 2015; having been moved on after one unsuccessful season at Red Hill, the 2012 Dally M-winning fullback made a vaunted switch to five-eighth (the position he finished the previous season at for the Broncos) with little success.
Constant injuries, an untimely early season suspension and the emergence of rookie of the year Jack Bird conspired to shunt Barba to the Sharks bench for the majority of the 19 games he featured in, having missed seven others mostly due to injury.
The 26-year-old lit up the pre-season Auckland Nines with two dazzling solo tries that harked back to his vintage 2012 season, while he has also got his family altogether under one roof in Cronulla with a third daughter on the way, due in June.
"I'm really looking forward to this year. It doesn't matter what position I am, I'm back enjoying my football and that's the main thing. I love this game and it doesn't matter if I'm one or 17, it's just being in a football team and being able to play this game of rugby league that makes me happy," a smiling Barba said at a team pre-season training camp in Terrigal last week.
"I think I've spent my first pre-season in a long time all at fullback. I know there's a bit of a battle going on there with a few names in the mix but all my training, all our trials are done now so all I can do now is wait to see where we're all put."
An 80-minute player
His coach Shane Flanagan praised the Mackay product's return to full fitness after a tough 2015.
"He tried hard last year but he always had something wrong with him. He had a foot injury then a knee injury then had a back injury. He just couldn't get consistency in his training," Flanagan said.
"This year he's probably had his best pre-season for a while, he's running freely. Benny's got to have his wheels, and be able to run. For him to have that [pace] and be really confident, it's good for us going into the season. In Benny's own words we haven't seen the best of him in a Sharks jersey and we need to this year.
"He's a confidence player, I need to instil some confidence in him, the team need to instil confidence around him and he'll benefit from that. It's probably one or two breakout games that can get him back to where he needs to be."
Flanagan had no hesitation in declaring Barba a starting player this year, in the strongest hint yet that Barba will grab the Cronulla No.1 jersey and force Jack Bird to the centres sooner rather than later.
"I haven't thought about Benny being a bench player for us. He could at different stages but for me, Benny at his best, he's in our team and playing 80 minutes. That's where we want to get him," Flanagan said.
Not walking away
Barba reflected that his troubles last year had dented his enthusiasm for the game, and although he stopped short of saying he contemplated walking away from the game he hinted that it crossed his mind.
"You go through patches as a footballer when times are tough and you think it would be easier to walk away but I think that's the difference in a lot of players is whether you want to fight for the good times. I'm really enjoying my training and really enjoying my football again," he said.
"I think just getting through this pre-season unscathed and being able to perform at my best again [turned things around].
"Not having to worry about injuries, not having to worry about problems with the body. It really allows you to rip into your training and not have any doubt if your body's going to hold up and it just allows you to focus on the footy side of things and it really, really helped."
A huge boost for Barba's mindset and wellbeing is having things settled off the field as well.
"It was my first pre-season where I was able to be settled in the city, I wasn't living out of anyone's homes or living out of motels, I settled in at home in the house I bought in Cronulla, my family moved down and everything was nice and settled," he said.
"That's another thing I think helped me through my training, being able to go home and relax and take my mind away from football and go from there.
"[We've got] another little girl on the way so I'll have an army of girls. I'm looking forward to it, they're beautiful lovely kids.
"We're due in June so not too long. A few months, three or four months, I can't wait."
And his thoughts on recapturing his Dally M-winning form?
"Back then I sort of had no fear. Being a young kid, I didn't have too much to worry about. I only had the one kid at the time – I think that sort of football was the young me," he said.
"As you get older you start to worry and have a little bit more concern about things. Hopefully that football is there but I like to think I'm a lot smarter footballer now, I read the game a lot better than what I did a few years ago. Hopefully it'll come back."
NRL Fantasy impact
Will you select Ben Barba in your NRL Fantasy team? He is a dual position player (half/wing-fullback), and with a price tag of $178,000 he could be set for some big price rises if he can nail down the starting fullback role at the Sharks.
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