Ben Barba scores a try for St Helens against the Castleford Tigers on February 2 in St Helens, England. Picture: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
Ben Barba scores a try for St Helens against the Castleford Tigers on February 2 in St Helens, England. Picture: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Barba to ride with the Cowboys

BEN Barba is returning home to the NRL to play for the North Queensland Cowboys.

The Courier-Mail can reveal Barba will help spearhead the post-Johnathan Thurston era in Townsville next season, with the Mackay product on the verge of inking a deal with the Cowboys.

Barba's management have been in discussions with the North Queensland hierarchy for the past fortnight.

Well-placed sources have confirmed Barba's move to the Cowboys is a done deal and that North Queensland will  formally announce his signing next week after Thurston's farewell against the Titans on Saturday night.

Former Broncos pivot Barba is in superb form in the English Super League, but has unfinished business in the NRL and is hoping to reprise the brilliance made him the 2012 Dally M Medal winner and helped Cronulla to the NRL title two years ago.

Formerly the code's best player, Barba is expected to play fullback next season in the No.1 jumper made famous by Cowboys legend Matt Bowen.

Barba's English club St Helens is aware of North Queensland's interest and will broker a release pending a transfer fee from the Cowboys, who have money to spend following the retirement of Thurston.

It is understood North Queensland has agreed to a one-year deal only to ensure Barba proves himself worthy of a longer-term contract following his cocaine scandal at Cronulla in 2016.

The 12-month deal leaves the door ajar for the Cowboys to launch a big-money poaching raid on Sharks flyer Valentine Holmes, who is considering returning to Townsville for the 2020 season.

Barba’s last game in the NRL was the 2016 grand final. Picture: Mark Evans
Barba’s last game in the NRL was the 2016 grand final. Picture: Mark Evans

Barba's Australian career appeared to be over when he was slapped with a 12-match ban by the NRL following his cocaine offence.

Crippled by financial debts at the time, Barba sought a big payday in French rugby before shifting to St Helens, where he has been the club's best Australian import since Mal Meninga, scoring 29 tries in 29 games.

The stint at St Helens has rekindled Barba's passion for the NRL and he will return to the Cowboys next season still young enough to shine after turning 29 in June.

Largely injury free,  Barba should have another three or four years in the NRL.

A former 18th man for the Queensland Origin side, Barba will bring attacking flair to a Cowboys team in desperate need of spark following their lowly finish this season.

Cowboys coach Paul Green is aware of the Barba pursuit and supportive of the signing.

Barba scored 99 NRL tries in 168 games after his debut for the Bulldogs in 2008 and played a starring role in Cronulla's 2016 premiership breakthrough.

He is unlikely to face any registration obstacles from NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg, given the governing body has rubber-stamped Broncos prop Matt Lodge's return to the game.

In an exclusive interview with The Courier-Mail last year, Barba said the cocaine scandal had made him appreciate what he had lost and he hadn't given up hope of an NRL return.

"I guess I've learned how easy things were when I was back in Australia and it's one of those things … you don't know what you've got until it's gone," Barba said from England.

Barba won the Dally M medal in 2012. Picture: Gregg Porteous
Barba won the Dally M medal in 2012. Picture: Gregg Porteous

"It hasn't so much been a learning curve, but I've understood things a little bit better. I've made mistakes and this is how I can make up for it really, by playing good football for St Helens.

"Just being around the town has showed me how important the club is to the people.

"I guess that (the hype around his signing with St Helens) comes with what I've done in my career. I struggled with that when I was younger but now I'm a lot older and I've seen what it's like to be the centre of media attention.

"Maybe one day I can return to the NRL. Now I know what I have to do to perform at my best."



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