When North Queensland signed Ben Barba in September last year, hopes were high. Barba had come off a great stint for St. Helens in the UK Super League, scoring 34 tries in 34 games and winning the Man of Steel award. The Cowboys, after a horrid season, would have hoped Barba could spark a finals return.
It looked good…until last Friday when Barba was sacked.
Barba isn’t some wide-eyed kid overwhelmed by too much money and power: he’s 30 this year and a father of four. While undoubtedly talented, he does have history of trouble in a 168-game career with Canterbury (2008-13), Brisbane (2014) and Cronulla (2015-16). After a magnificent 2016, playing a huge part in Cronulla’s first premiership (scoring the opening try in the grand final), he was dropped after testing positive for cocaine.
On Tuesday February 3rd, Barba was banned for life. The decision shows the NRL is serious about finally cleaning up its image, though considering their track record with “bad boys”, it’s easy to be cynical.
Matt Lodge was a controversial signing for Brisbane last year after “the New York incident”. The NRL was heavily criticised by fans, but – to Lodge’s credit – he kept his nose clean and played 25 games for the Broncos. Whether is was morally right for Lodge to return is a different matter.
Other recent examples of talented players making a mess of things include Todd Carney, Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson. Both Dugan and Ferguson were sacked from Canberra after their 2013 rooftop shenanigans, but are now back in the NRL with little drama, though their problems were relatively minor compared to Barba, Lodge and Carney.
Carney, born in Goulburn, was amazing for Canberra from 2004-09. Despite his on-field prowess, a string of off-field problems forced the Raiders’ hand and Carney was gone by March 2009. It was sad for Canberra as they had moulded Carney, but it had to be done. After some time at the Atherton Roosters, Carney returned with the Roosters in 2010, scoring over 200 points and winning the 2010 Dally M medal as the Roosters finished runners up. All seemed well until 2011, when the Roosters released Carney after more off-field incidents. He joined Cronulla in 2012, but was gone in 2014 after “the bubbler” incident. Carney rehabilitated himself in the UK, playing for Catalans, Salford and Hull KR (playing a total of 56 games). While there’s rumours of another NRL comeback, it’s unlikely considering his history.
The NRL has tried to foster a better attitude towards women; the Women in League round is a popular addition to the themed round calendar, the NRLW started last year, the Women’s Origin is growing in popularity, as are the Jillaroos national side. Female commentators like Yvonne Sampson (and the all-female panel show ‘League Life’) are also popular, though the backlash against Erin Molan for “ruining” the rebooted Footy Show was a backwards step. Hopefully Barba’s ban shows the NRL is serious about respecting women.