There’s pressure on Toulon’s new signing Ben Barba to perform from the outset, as his demanding new boss publicly recalls certain former cross-code success Sonny Bill Williams.
Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal invoked the memory of double World Cup-winner Sonny Bill Williams at the club’s official unveiling of its latest cross-code punt, Ben Barba.
Barba, the former Cronulla Sharks player who quit the NRL after being slapped with a 12-match ban for illicit drug use, has signed for the Top 14 club until the end of the current campaign, with an option for a further two seasons.
Contrary to speculation in Australia that Barba’s Toulon debut could be as long as a year away, French rugby media have said he could make his Top 14 bow as early as this weekend, when Toulon face Lyon at Stade Mayol, despite – like Williams when he first arrived – never having previously played rugby union at elite level.
Given Toulon’s strength across the back line, even during the annual player drain that is the Six Nations, such an early outing seems unlikely. But Barba’s lack of experience in the 15-man game does not concern Boudjellal: “Talent, genius, does not need much time to adapt. He is, for me, a phenomenal player. There are not many [like him] in world rugby.”
The Toulon president cited Williams as a success story that he hopes Barba – on a deal reportedly worth €560,000 a season – will emulate. Williams made his try-scoring union debut for Toulon as a replacement against Clermont just a month after quitting the NRL’s Canterbury Bulldogs in July 2008. He went on score five more times in 33 appearances for the Top 14 side between 2008 and 2010, and has since won two World Cups with the All Blacks and a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs.
Nor is the 27-year-old Barba bothered about his apparent lack of rugby union credentials. He played the 15-a-side game as a teenager in Australia before opting to play rugby league professionally. “I’m not new to the sport,” he said. “I’ve played the game and have a bit of history – but it has been a while.”
One of the questions still to be answered is how and where he will fit into any Toulon team. “I played at full-back in rugby league – but it’s obviously a different sort of role here in rugby union. I think I’m capable of playing anywhere in the backline … but I’m new to this team, so I guess I’ll just do my job and whatever’s asked of me.”
But it seems Toulon are not looking to change much about their new signing: “One thing that drew me here was when I spoke to [head coach] Mike [Ford] and how he wanted me to play. He … wants me to play as if I was playing rugby league, my natural game. I think that’s what brought me here – the direction and how Mike wants me to play.”
Fitness, meanwhile, should not be a problem. “I’d like to think I’m ready [to play]. I had to be physically ready because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t want to come here out of shape. I wanted to come here and play as soon as possible.
“I’ve walked around the gym and I’ve seen the pictures of past teams and great players – like Sonny and Jonny Wilkinson – and the guys they have right now, like Matt [Giteau] and Bryan [Habana]. I’m just looking forward to joining the team and getting out on the paddock and playing some rugby.”
Barba’s club-country-code switch came after he was hit with a 12-game drugs ban in November and initially released by Cronulla Sharks. He would later re-sign with the club on a one-year contract, but the NRL delayed ratifying this second deal, which would have allowed him to begin serving his ban.
That was when Toulon made their offer. Boudjellal said: “Everyone has the right to make mistakes. An error should not determine a lifetime. We want him to go into the rugby academies and schools and tell the kids where not to go wrong.”
Barba admitted that the situation in Australia was difficult – but insisted he was determined to put his past behind him: “It was quite tough to begin with but … I’m in Toulon now, looking forward to this challenge. I’m ready to move on and ready to have a go at playing rugby.
“It was my decision to come here. I could have taken the easy road and stayed in Australia, but I wanted to challenge myself by coming over here.
“I see this as a new and exciting challenge and one that will take me out of my comfort zone and test me as a person. It’s something I’m really looking forward to.”
And he had a message for French rugby journalists. “The media [in France] might not be as crazy as the Australian rugby league press. Hopefully I can perform really well and keep you all on my good side.”
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