Remember Ben Barba? The kid of 2012 who played like a video-game character come to life, a splendid sprite who unleashed one meme-worthy highlight after another as he became the leading try-scorer and the most talked-about player in the comp? He was that delightful rarity: the way he played looked so much fun, it was infectious.
Reality mugged Barba pretty hard in the following years, in his personal and professional life. From Canterbury via Brisbane to Cronulla, his arrival in the Shire had the feel of a comedown – like a former young movie star settling for a network television show. Still only in his mid-20s, there were other, younger talents at the club set to fly past him, like Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes.
Unpredictability has always been a Barba trait, and after spending most of his first year with the Sharks as a sparkplug off the bench, his second season has taken a different turn. Installed once again in the no.1 jumper, Barba has been an integral part of a dream Cronulla run, as they flirted with breaking the league’s record winning streak.
It’s a different Barba to the one of 2012 – where he had been the free-running soloist with the Bulldogs. At Cronulla he’s served more as a playmaker in the league’s highest-scoring attack, working in concert with halves James Maloney and Chad Townsend. While he remains a potent try-scorer, it’s notable that Barba was also top-five in the NRL for try assists.
The question remains in front of Barba and his team: can Cronulla finally get it done? The club that famously remains without a premiership since it entered the league in 1967 is looking at its best opportunity yet. Barba, whose dream 2012 ended in grand final loss, will be seeking to cap this reclamation project in the most unforgettable way.