Ben Barba's candid interview on footy highs, lows and demons
POLARISING Mackay rugby league figure Ben Barba has opened up about the incredible highs and lows of his professional career in a wide-ranging interview with T.I. Talks Footy.
Barba, 30, sat down with host Tye Ingebrigsten on Sunday night for a near two-hour discussion that spanned his junior playing days in Mackay, transition to the NRL, his Dally M Medal-winning season, grand final glory and more.
The former NRL and Super League fullback spoke candidly about his time in rehab, run-ins with the media and his propensity to make life hard for himself whenever things appeared to be going well.
Barba often used the analogy of climbing a mountain. He said every time he got to the top of the mountain something would happen, often through his own doing, that would cause him to fall once again.
"That's probably the first time he's opened up and spoken about his career," Ingebrigsten told the Daily Mercury.
"He's not blaming anyone else for how his career ended. He's man enough to take that on the chin."
Barba offered a peek behind the curtain of what it was like to live in the spotlight, dealing with the pressures that came with being the competition's best player and the expectations of fans, media and himself.
In front of a live viewing audience of hundreds, the 168-game NRL player told Ingebrigsten his decision to leave the Bulldogs at the end of 2013 came because he wanted to stay close to his children, after his partner decided she wanted to move from Sydney back to Brisbane soon after they had split.
"I've always been thankful to the Dogs for giving me a chance. But at the end of the day I love my family and sometimes in footy, business is business," Barba said. "And I found that out after spending a year at Brisbane."
Barba said the ankle injury he sustained during the 2013 finals, which required surgery in the off-season, hampered his 2014 preparations and made it difficult to make the kind of early impact that was expected of him at the Broncos.
"I was miles behind everyone to begin with because of the ankle. That sounds like a bit of an excuse but for me … to be playing good I needed to be super fit and it just felt like I was behind the starter mark the whole time," he said.
"It was probably one of the most disappointing times in my life. I went up there with this goal to try and get myself back to that 2012 (form). I wanted to get back up that mountain but (instead) I kept going down the mountain. The doubt was tearing me up inside."
At the end of 2014, Barba met with then-Broncos boss Wayne Bennett and learned there was no place for him in the starting side.
His return to Sydney with Cronulla in 2015 offered little respite from the "head noise" that kept telling him he might not be good enough to play NRL football anymore.
"We weren't going too well and I got shifted back to that bench role again, and here I was thinking, 's--- it's starting again for me'," Barba said.
"To be honest I wouldn't know where I was. Just being at training sometimes you'd find yourself just not there - thinking about what's next. Am I ever going to be good enough again? You start thinking about s--- that's not important. You're not present in the moment.
"I was thinking if this doesn't get better soon I'm going to be on the scrap heap. How am I going to look after my family?"
He said a chat with good mate Daly Cherry-Evans, coupled with a return home to Mackay to play in an indigenous carnival in the 2015 off-season, was the catalyst for his form revival at the Sharks which culminated in a 2016 premiership.
"Being around family, being around that brotherhood … I've always gone back to them and found my love of the game again," Barba said.
"I don't know what it is about playing in these carnivals but I hold each one pretty special. There's a brotherhood about it. Just coming back home and reconnecting with everyone again, getting that love from the family knowing they've got your back no matter what gives you that little boost to get you through."
Barba returned to Cronulla in 2016 fighting for his favoured number one jersey with a young Valentine Holmes. He said that was the push he needed to get himself back into shape.
"It came down to me working my ass off just trying to get myself in the best shape I possibly could. The club … had some great people there that year. They got me in the best shape I could possibly be since 2012," Barba said.
"If I look back now, after 2012 I probably took things for granted. I thought s--- was just going to happen for me. It wasn't until I was down in the dumps and I thought I would give this one last crack and make something for myself (that things started to turn around).
"The games went on and we were playing good as a team and I just happened to be part of that wonderful squad at Cronulla that year."
The high of the 2016 premiership was soon scuppered by the low of a second positive test for a banned substance. With it came a 12-week ban and his position at Cronulla was terminated.
"I got caught up in the midst of winning a premiership. It's not something I'm very proud of," Barba said.
"I'd always seem to stuff up when things were going good for myself. If there's one thing I can look back on, is that every time things went well for me, I would always do something to stuff it up and bring myself down. I wish I had made better decisions."
Perhaps the best decision Barba made was to move to Europe in 2017 to link with professional rugby side Toulon. His brief stint spanned just four games, but that exposure caught the eye of Super League side St Helens and he made the move that year to play for the Red V.
Barba returned to the peak of his playing powers at St Helens. He won the Man of Steel award as the competition's best player in 2018 - only the second person after Greg Miller to claim both the NRL and Super League's highest honour.
Many St Helens fans set their clocks to tune in to the interview on Sunday night. Barba took the opportunity to let them know why he chose to come back to Australia.
"I'm sad when I think back. I probably should have never left. At the time I was enjoying my life over there (and) my footy was going well," he said.
"The reason I came back was I lost my grandmother on my mum's side during the year. St Helen's offered for me to come back, but I knew if I left I probably would never return. I ended up missing her funeral … that was the breaking point for me to come home.
"Being here now is probably my chance to let the guys over there know that was the reason for me coming back. I couldn't go through the pain of doing that again."
Barba linked with the Cowboys ahead of the 2019 NRL season and after impressing in pre-season appeared destined for good things in the number one jersey made famous by his childhood idol Matt Bowen.
Instead he was sacked by the Cowboys and deregistered from the NRL, after an integrity unit investigation found he had been involved in a physical altercation with his partner at a Townsville Casino on Australia Day.
"I lost my head and made a mistake that cost me everything and brought me home to Mackay," Barba said.
"I did things that weren't right and stuff that I'm not very proud of that cost me my career. At the end of the day it's no one's fault but mine."
The Daily Mercury understands Barba was just weeks away from a potential return to playing in Mackay this year, with the QRL board set to meet and vote to reinstate him, when another off-field incident got in the way.
"I was banned from the NRL but not from playing local league. I was close to being able to be registered again this year but again, got into a bit of trouble again and sort of f----- it for myself again," Barba said.
"I won't sit here and smile about it. I just have to work through it now."
Barba told Ingebrigsten, himself a coach of Rugby League Mackay & District side the Whitsunday Brahmans, that he still held onto the hope of playing football in Mackay.
"If an opportunity comes next year and I've got my head straight and keep myself out of trouble, hopefully I'm allowed to run around again," Barba said.
"It will have been 2-3 years since I played a competitive game of footy. Playing another local A-Grade game again … it would be fun to see how I go if I get the chance to do it again."
Ingebrigsten said he thought a return to local footy in his hometown would be good for Barba, even if it meant coaching against him. But he would have to prove himself in the eyes of the community.
"I definitely think it would be positive not just for himself, but everyone involved in football at the club he played at," Ingebrigsten said.
"I think what he can give on the field and at training … and if he was willing to roll his socks up and do some stuff with juniors and in the community, it would be so influential to the club and the code.
"Even as a coach at another club that would have to coach against him … what he does best is play footy. He's had some time away now. If he gets to do it again in one or two years down the track, I'd love to see him play footy again."