The RFL’s ouRLeague app has been a sound introduction into the rugby league landscape this season – barring the way the man of the match award is picked on Sky Sports! – and one great feature they regularly use is called ‘Face Off’.
On it, a Super League coach is asked questions by one of his star players and vice-versa; this week’s instalment featured St Helens boss Justin Holbrook and the mercurial Ben Barba.
Just the mere thought of seeing Barba will be enough to send some Super League fans giddy these days; not least given the way he performed against Salford on Thursday night.
But there was one particular quote from Barba which stood out given events elsewhere this week: “You can only learn from your mistakes, and I’ve made a fair few over my career. You take the enjoyment out of what you’re doing sometimes.”
Barba was specifically referring to his time in French rugby union, and (most probably) the way he ended up in the 15-man code. Let’s strip things back for a minute and call a spade a spade; Ben Barba arrived on these shores a drugs user and with a man who had to serve a significant (albeit not as long as other people) ban for the use of cocaine.
But he will leave, in all eventuality, as one of the finest players to have graced this competition in well over a decade. Maybe, if he continues at the rate he’s going and he’s here for at least one more year, he’ll be regarded as one of the Saints’ – and British rugby league’s – best imports in a generation.
That’s the brilliance of sport. For those 80 minutes each and every week, what happens on the field helps us forget about everything that’s come before, or everything that’s going to happen afterwards. And, much to his immense credit, Barba appears to be showing all the hallmarks of a man who has not only learned from that mistake, but is now enjoying life on and off the field.
He’ll go home at some point – but for now, Super League should be just glad he’s here for however long that may be. It’s a joy to watch him.
And that’s where another supremely talented fullback comes into the mix. With it now official that Zak Hardaker will be free to play rugby league again by November this year – he remains likely to join Wigan for 2019 – one can only hope Hardaker has taken a step back this week and watched the British public marvel at Barba while he sits on the sidelines with a drugs ban of his own.
For me, the talk about Hardaker’s misdemeanours now come to an end. He’s serving his ban, he knows he has made a mistake and I, for one, am prepared to give him another chance when he does return to rugby league at the end of this year.
Irrespective of the many opinions about the length of ban Hardaker could or should have received, the facts are that 14 months is a long, long time for someone to be prevented from doing the things they love. Last year, while everyone raved about the superlative Super League leaders in Castleford, they paid particular attention to Hardaker, who was at the heartbeat of most things the Tigers did well in 2017 before he failed a drugs test in September.
Hardaker, like Barba, has made more than one mistake in his professional career up to now. Barba has returned from a drugs ban and has shown there is life after the most serious of mistakes.
Let’s not escape the fact that there will have been children – young, aspiring players – who looked up to Hardaker as a role model and may never be able to do the same again. But, crucially, Barba has shown that there is a way to at least restoring some of your reputation. I will quite happily go on the record saying that Hardaker the player, to me, is up there with the best I’ve seen in a long, long time. I truly hope, for his and British rugby league’s sake, he can get back to the levels he has shown in the past.
I’m a big believer in people being allowed to atone for their mistakes. Zak Hardaker has, through his own mistakes and by doing something so many people could never imagine doing once, been robbed of a Super League Grand Final, a World Cup and over a year of his career.
If that – plus the way everyone is currently in adulation of the brilliance of Ben Barba – isn’t motivation to set himself straight and get back to dazzling the rugby league public himself, who knows what will be.