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OPINION | Will Saints star Ben Barba be going home?

Football might be coming home, but St Helens fans may be just as interested in whether Ben Barba will be going home.

The infamous song has been adapted by opposition fans to taunt Saints, who will be rightly concerned about the prospect of losing their prized Australian full-back.

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Barba tops the Super League try scoring charts with 20 tries in 17 games, making him the overwhelming favourite to pick up the Man of Steel award.

His performances have helped to put St Helens six points clear at the top of the league table, and he also has three Challenge Cup tries to take them to within one win of a first Wembley appearance in 10 years.

It’s been less than a year since the controversial figure made his debut for the club, but there is no shortage of speculation that the man who has set Super League alight this year could soon be on his way back.

The rise, fall and rise of Barba

Barba joined NRL side Canterbury Bulldogs in 2007 and went on to win the Dally M Medal as the league’s best player in 2012. However he was stood down by the club in 2013 to deal with personal issues, and in that time he entered rehabilitation for gambling and alcohol problems.

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He soon returned before departing for the Brisbane Broncos, and after just a season there, he moved to Cronulla Sharks in 2015. He helped the club win their first ever NRL premiership the following year, but the Grand Final would be his final game as he tested positive for cocaine just days later and was released.

In February 2017 it was announced that he would join French rugby union side Toulon, but he was sacked after playing just four matches and 96 minutes in the Top 14. Two weeks later, on 24 May, he signed a two-and-a-half year contract with St Helens.

However he still had a 12-match drugs ban to serve, so he had to wait until September to make his debut for Saints and made just five appearances for Justin Holbrook’s side as they fell to defeat in the play-off semi-final to Castleford.

A season to remember

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Barba was the bookies’ favourite for the Man of Steel award this season before a ball had even been thrown, and he showed his potential from the start by scoring two tries in a Man of the Match performance as Saints thrashed Castleford 46-6 in the opening game.

He and Saints haven’t looked back since, and there have been some wonderful highlights along the way; the footwork for two sensational tries against Salford, the dummy that left two defenders on their backsides at Hull KR, the lightning break from halfway to help end their Good Friday hoodoo over Wigan. Perhaps the most sublime of them all was the try from 70m against Huddersfield, with dizzying feet that left the entire Giants team in a spin.

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Then there was the sensational hat-trick in the Challenge Cup win at Castleford in May, which featured an effort going the full length of the field, an audacious show and go and a jinxing run past five defenders. And just two weeks later he tormented the Tigers yet again with another spellbinding solo effort from one try line to the other.

He leads the scoring charts with his 20 Super League tries, while only Leeds’ Richie Myler has assisted more scores than Barba’s 21. Some of his other stats are remarkable as well; 24 clean breaks (often ending in tries, of course), and 1786 metres made at a huge 9.25m average.

He has just about everything, from the trickery in his feet to the speed in his legs, with massive upper body strength as well as a smart brain on top of it all. Right now, Barba is arguably one of the most exciting talents in all of British sport.

Value to Saints

Barba has not been the only standout in a fantastic team, but he has helped to bring the best out of the exciting young talents that Holbrook, who arrived at St Helens only a couple of weeks before he did, has made regulars.

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Regan Grace is already one of the most dangerous wingers in Super League at 21, and at the same age Danny Richardson has been arguably the best half-back in the competition this season and has no doubt been helped by Barba orchestrating and leading the backline.

The more experienced Tommy Makinson has been in the best form of his career and recently earned a first England call-up, while centre Mark Percival has reached a whole new level this year and scored 17 tries of his own.

Holbrook arrived in Merseyside with an attacking philosophy, and in the last 14 months it has been clear that he, Barba and St Helens were all ideally suited to each other.

There is far more to the team than Barba, but he is the most important cog in a very well-oiled machine and fans would be right to be concerned about the prospect of him leaving.

What next?

His performances this season mean that it comes as no surprise that there is a lot interest in bringing him back Down Under.

So where might he be next season? He is under contract at St Helens until the end of next year and Holbrook is insistent that their star man is going nowhere, a point echoed by chairman Eamonn McManus.

Barba has always said that he will consider his future only at the end of the season, but insists that he and his family are very happy in England.

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That is undoubtedly true, and he certainly wouldn’t be playing at the level he has this season if that wasn’t the case.

There is no doubt that he is fully committed to the club right now, and is focused on helping them pick up as many trophies as possible this year.

St Helens will want to keep him as long as possible, although there was intrigue around the signing from Wests Tigers of outside-back Kevin Naiqama, a potential like-for-like replacement for Barba, for 2019. For his part, Holbrook insisted the signing was only to strengthen what he already had.

However, reports of a return to the NRL are inevitable and they have come thick and fast in recent weeks, with former side Cronulla allegedly showing strong interest.

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Barba may still have to do deal with some of the repercussions and reputational damage back home of his drugs conviction, and he might consider remaining for a little while longer at a club where he is dearly loved to be the best option.

But he is also hugely ambitious, and if he can achieve a full sweep of the honours in England this season then he may well be tempted back to the NRL, where he can prove himself to be one of the world’s best.

His talent is so great that it seems unlikely he will stay in Super League for much longer. Whether it is at the end of this season or the next he will leave eventually, and we should make sure that we enjoy the Ben Barba show while it lasts.

What do you think?

Will Ben Barba still be a Super League player in 2019?

I am a 19-year-old Sports Journalism student at the University of Huddersfield. I cover a lot of rugby league, following Hull FC and Huddersfield Giants and working for Halifax RLFC. If you want to see more of my ramblings on rugby and football then follow me on Twitter @stibbo99.

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