Can St Helens keep hold of Ben Barba?

He has lit up Super League so far this season as St Helens lead the way in the hunt for glory, but sadly it may be a case of enjoy it while it lasts with their star full-back Ben Barba.

The mercurial Australian has been one of the best signings of the past decade as he has sought to repair his career following the drugs suspension received from the NRL at the back end of 2016 that saw him released by Cronulla Sharks.

His sheer dominance week in week out for Saints has been a joy to behold, and while we had a few dress rehearsals from him at the back end of the last campaign following the end of his ban, it’s since the round one thrashing of Castleford this season that we’ve really been wowed by the former Brisbane and Canterbury man.

In that game, Barba set a minimum standard that he’s never looked like dropping below, scoring two tries and setting up four more to earn the man of the match award. But the lasting memory of that match for me was when he hauled last season’s top try scorer, Greg Eden, in to touch as the Tigers looked to counter when the game was long won.

He’s gone on to score 15 tries and set up 17 more in leading Saints to 12 wins from 14 games in Super League this year, and they are heavy favourites to add to that in their Magic Weekend with Widnes at St James’ Park on Saturday.

The whole man is just a highlight tape from one end of the field to another, doing all of his talking on the pitch, and that was evident in his hat-trick against Castleford in the Challenge Cup in the front of the BBC Sport cameras at the weekend, showcasing his talents live to a truly national audience for the first time.

It is players like him that get fans talking and get fans excited, and there haven’t been enough like him over the past 10 years.

There was a heart in mouth moment a few weeks back when he was stretchered off in a neck brace during the game against Salford and taken to hospital, but was eventually cleared of serious injury. The response of fans across the game to that potential injury perhaps showed that while rival fans will no doubt be envious of Saints boasting his talents, his presence in Super League is a positive to everyone.

Under contract until the end of 2019, you would be a brave man to be on him seeing that out as Barba attracts suitors back in the NRL and Saints will struggle to fight off the riches that those Down Under boast.

It has already been rumoured that they have sounded out Fiji captain Kevin Naiqama, currently with Wests Tigers, with reports Down Under suggesting a three-year deal has already been agreed. Naiqama has been left out of the last two games by Wests, who currently have ex-Widnes winger Corey Thompson playing at full-back.

There is nothing to suggest that Saints couldn’t carry both players in their team thanks to the marquee player rule – a daunting thought for opponents, no doubt – but momentum is now building around a Barba return Down Under.

He is being linked with a return to Cronulla, the team that punted him in 2016, while Wests are also a possible destination.

Rumours swirling Ben Barba is ‘coming home’

Should his form continue on its upwards curve, there may be NRL clubs willing to move things around to create the salary cap space to accommodate him.

Super League has struggled to attract genuine superstars from Down Under in the past few years, having been completely left behind by the increase in the NRL salary cap, the minimum wage and the weakness of the pound.

No doubt for the top clubs, the frustration of that situation may be one of the reasons behind the ongoing fight to wrestle back control of Super League, and its TV money, to help the big boys push forward and be able to compete for major signings once again. The salary cap is due to increase to £2.1m by 2020, whereas the current NRL salary cap is approximately £3.8m. It would be naive to suggest that without a new enhanced broadcast deal and more sponsors that even the biggest Super League clubs would be able to sustain anything near that, but as Wigan and Hull showed with their trip to Australia earlier this year, there are commercial successes out there to be had for clubs to raise revenue.

The best players in the world will always want to test themselves in the best, most lucrative competition in the world and that won’t change.

For Barba, he will see himself as one of the best and the time will come soon where he goes back and proves that point.

For Saints, maybe the best they can hope for in this situation is that Barba does return to the NRL with a Super League and Challenge Cup winners medal and Man of Steel award in his suitcase.

1 Comment

  1. I think Ben should repay the faith Saint had in him,and stay for the next 12months as a thank you to Saints and the fans.He has plenty of playing years left in him to go chase the money after that.I am living in hope I am afraid.

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