|Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-finals|
|Venue: The University of Bolton Stadium, Bolton Date: Sunday, 5 August Kick-off: 12:30 BST & 14:45 BST Coverage: Live on BBC One, coverage on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC local radio and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.|
Ben Barba is arguably one of the brightest stars in British sport – but most of the nation may never have heard of him.
The Australian sensation has bewitched and bedazzled with St Helens in Super League this year, rebuilding his career in the English game after a cocaine controversy down under.
He has already scored 23 tries, created just as many more, and excited Saints’ and neutral fans alike with his thrill-a-minute approach.
Barba will be hoping to take centre stage in the first of a Challenge Cup semi-final double-header on Sunday, when St Helens face Catalans Dragons in a bid to reach the Wembley final on 25 August.
Team-mate Jon Wilkin believes Barba has not just inspired St Helens’ electrifying form this season, but he also provides a key to what rugby league needs to do to get itself back in the British sporting spotlight.
“A Ben Barba puts you on the edge of your seat, kids want that name and number on their shirt, and we’ve got to inspire people to get interested in the game,” said Wilkin.
“As much as we don’t like to admit it, we’ve become commercially unable to keep these stars in the game and that needs to change.
“Ben has single-handedly stimulated an energy and enthusiasm for supporting St Helens again, especially in younger people.”
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‘He’s done some things wrong and he’s aware of that’
The likelihood is Barba may never have come to Super League but for a drugs controversy at the end of 2016. A few days after helping Cronulla win their first ever NRL Grand Final victory, he tested positive for use of cocaine.
The out-of-season breach resulted in a 12-week ban and the Sharks ripped up his contract.
He had a short, unsuccessful spell in French rugby union with Toulon, before St Helens swooped. And now he is back on top of the world.
St Helens coach Justin Holbrook knew exactly what he was getting when he signed Barba – a player with star quality both on and off the field, and he had no hesitation in giving him a second chance.
“It’s not just his playing ability, it’s what he does for the rest of the team. Great players make other players better and Ben’s doing that,” Holbrook told BBC Sport.
“He’s done some things wrong and he’s aware of that. To the public, those things will always be there, but he’s actually a really quiet, shy type of guy that loves rugby league.
“When you get to know him, he’s an absolute champion fella.
“So absolutely he deserves another chance to play the game. He’s a good guy, he’s got a great family and I hope he continues to play as well as he is for St Helens and in Super League.”
Those sentiments are backed up by current Warrington coach Steve Price, who was part of the Cronulla coaching set up for three years while Barba was at that club.
“He’s fantastic to be around and he challenges his men around him,” said Price.
“He’s one of those who can rip a video session apart better than anyone. He sees things that other coaches can’t see.”
‘He’s paid back the club’s investment in him’
Barba will have a terrific platform to showcase his talents on Sunday, with a packed house at Bolton and many more watching live on BBC One.
It might be the first time most of the television viewers will have seen him, but Wilkin has already experienced how he is beginning to make a cut through with non-rugby league audiences, while he was in Newcastle for Magic Weekend in May.
“I walked out of the team hotel and found a shop. The guy behind the counter asked if I was there for the rugby,” recalled Wilkin.
“He said ‘I don’t understand rugby league, I’ve never watched a game, but I’m coming because I want to see what all the fuss is about Ben Barba.’
“For me that was just a ‘wow’ moment. That’s a lesson for the game.”
Now the St Helens veteran wants rugby league to find a way to invest more in keeping the big stars in the British game, to help boost the profile of Super League.
He added: “We’ve let Sam Burgess go to the NRL, we’ve let too many of our star players go and ply their trade somewhere else. I hear all the time about how it makes the England team better and that it’s good for our sport.
“I think that’s nonsense. I couldn’t disagree more. Super League, as a product, needs its stars on the field.
“I watched rugby league because of the big personalities, stars like Ellery Hanley, Paul Sculthorpe and Iestyn Harris. With all due respect to myself, I wouldn’t have watched the game if there were just loads of me running around.”
Barba was heavily tipped to win rugby league’s coveted player of the season prize, the Steve Prescott Man of Steel award, even before this campaign began. He is well on course for that honour.
Whether he can help St Helens to as many as three domestic trophies remains to be seen, but whatever happens from here, Wilkin believes Barba has already left his mark.
“He’s paid back the club’s investment in him, with a big salary, 10-fold. The feeling he’s helped create at St Helens is at least a 10-year high, and we can’t underestimate that as a sport,” said the England international.