A SNAKE-charmer, secret whistles and coconut oil. In the quest to find out things about Ben Barba that you don’t know, that’s not a bad haul.
Rugby League Week has been pursuing the Canterbury fullback for some two months now for our A-List feature. After repeated delays, your correspondent was told last week that we would probably not be able to sit down with the 23-year-old this year.
The shutters had come down. Barba’s mum, Kim, told us in compiling this story that she and her husband Ken has been asked by the fullback and his management to keep a low profile, not to put pressure on him with outrageous public statements. The finals are upon us, Ben is an un-backable favourite for the Dally M medal and a pretty good chance of winning the RLW player of the year as well.
This writer found himself in the bizarre situation last Wednesday of sharing the green room with Barba at Fox Sports but feeling morally obliged not to ask him for any quotes, lest it get him in strife with his club. He was as relaxed and polite as any footballer could wish to be, posing for pictures with the star-struck sons of hosts Matthew Johns and Greg Alexander and asking them about their own fledgling rugby league careers.
At that point, I had heard suggestions Barba was related to Ram Chandra, the legendary snake handler who is responsible for the development of many anti-venenes for snakebites. In a bygone era of Paul Hogan, Number 96 and Matlock Police, Chandra was a household name in this country. And it was a seductive notion, to believe a blood connection between the showman who died in 1998 and the youngster from Mackay who deftly handles wild ‘animals’ for 80 minutes every weekend, narrowly avoiding injury with almost super human reflexes.
But without any concrete evidence, the publication of this story still a week away and the Bulldogs on the alert for any outlandish publicity, asking Ben seemed too much of a risk – for both of us – at Pyrmont last week. So I didn’t.
“Oh yes, it’s true,” says Ken Barba when we call the next day. Ken’s father, Marmin (same name as one of his six children, the injured Parramatta star) had a sister called Leah, who married the snake man. No blood connection, then….
“My children know about him but they were too young to have seen him handling snakes,” says Ken, before recounting the walking route from his own childhood memories that he took to the home of the family’s very own fairground attraction.
“Long before Ben came along, when I was young, we used to go over to their place. Under the house, they would have boxes full of all kinds of snakes. As kids, we would take frogs and feed them to the snakes.
“Me, I’m scared of snakes to this day.”
Ram Chandra’s real name was Edward Royce Ramsamy. “Our real family name was Binbarba,” explains Ken. “We dropped the ‘Bin’ and just made it Barba.” And for those who have been trying to pick Ben’s ethnicity – aside from indigenous – Ken explains: “We think Mum’s father was Afghani, or something like that.
“People have been saying Indian but … it’s Afghan.”
Barry Blanchfield has been in charge of the Mackay District Junior Rugby League for 32 years. He remembers an unusual aspect of sharing the hill areas around north Queensland with Ken, a player of some note himself back in the day, as his sons west about their business.
“He used to do these whistles, that were like signals to the boys,” says Blanchfield, who has seen Rodney, Aaron, Ben and Marmin at close range as young hopefuls. “He did it for all the boys, telling them to do something like chip ahead or kick or run to a certain place.
“The boys all knew what each whistle meant and would do it. I saw it with all of them.”
Ken chuckles when RLW asks him about this. “If the fullback wasn’t at home, I would do a certain whistle and Ben would know and would be able to make the most of it. If the fullback was up in the line, I would do the whistle and Ben would hear it and know.
“I went down to a game in Sydney, against Parramatta I think, and I was sitting there and I noticed something so I did the whistle. Over all the people, Ben heard it, and he looked straight at me!
“He recognised it and looked at me in the stands.”
JOURNALISTS who attended the Bulldogs’ now-regulation media day at Belmore Sports Ground last Wednesday weren’t sure if Barba’s team-mates were part of playing down his genius, of ‘Operation Ben Who?’. Kris Keating, Marty Taupau, Michael Ennis, Sam Perrett, Aiden Tolman and Johnathan Wright were all interviewed and, it’s a fair bet, were all asked about the bloke in their team who wears no.1.
Speaking the previous Sunday, after a 22-14 win over Brisbane, Wright had said: “All credit to Benny. He can score tries from anywhere but his defence has improved 200 per cent. His catching, the one-percenters of holding someone up, he’s got it all at the moment.
“He seems like a pretty quiet bloke but on the field, he’ll yell at you. He’ll make sure you get to there, get to here. That’s another thing he’s improved on – his talk in attack and defence. The forwards love it because they need direction from the back.”
This writer didn’t detect much hesitancy on the subject three days later. “He’s been playing really well, Benny,” said Perrett. “No-one’s perfect. He’s still got things to work on, as we all do, but he’s definitely a good player.”
Junior Kiwis captain Taupau played with Barba in the under 20s, where he was held back for longer than most fans could stand. “His first year, when he came down from Mackay, he was quicker then but lighter,” Taupau said. “He’s improved a lot with his defence especially. He’s good. When I was younger, I kept to myself so I didn’t really hang around with Benny.
“As a person, he’s a top bloke and as a footballer he’s improved massively. He’s only, what, 23?”
Half Kris Keating was the only one who performed anything like a block manoeuvre to questions about Barba. “I think the whole team’s going well,” he said. “Right across the park, the whole team’s doing what they need to do. It helps Benny a long way.
“If we weren’t doing our job, he wouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing.”
It’s no scoop that Ben Barba is “a good player”. Perhaps what sets him apart from previous incarnations of himself, though, is his disarming modesty. This is something everybody, including the Johns, Alexander and Warren Smith last Wednesday night, want to ask him about. He seems unsure of how to answer. How did Barba go from a man who seemed to have an in-built air-raid siren, who inspired little confidence in his ability as the last line of defence, to a bonafide try-saver, safe as pre-recession houses?
The answer was, perhaps, in the replays shown during last week’s NRL On Fox program, of Barba dropping bombs against Penrith and standing forlornly under his post with the cameras fixed on him. If that doesn’t make you modest, and it doesn’t make you fix it, then nothing will.
THE great French fullback Puig Aubert (‘Pig Orbit’ to 1950s Australians) used to smoke during training and complain that if attackers got past the other 12 defenders, it was was not his job to stop them.
Such is Barba’s confidence in his own defensive worth now that he told me on the field at fulltime in the Brisbane game, during which he saved two certain tries: “I’d like to think sometimes I don’t want to be in that position.
“I’d like to think our defensive line could hold them up. We were a bit down on that today. It was a bit disappointing.”
But perhaps the most compelling proof that Barba’s former weaknesses have created his biggest strengths today – modesty and diligence – is when he is asked about an astounding, match-winning try, scored from a standing start with searing speed from about where we are now standing half an hour later.
“Luckily enough I put a bit of cream on my legs before the game,” he says, before adding that it’s not the same substance that club-mate James Graham once applied with a trowel. “It’s body lotion…..”
In fact, he later reveals, it’s coconut oil. That’s why he beats players like a scene from the Matrix. Coconut oil.
KEN Barba says he’ll be in Sydney for the finals, and perhaps the Dally Ms “if I get a quiet word that he’s a chance”. Whatever that word is, Ken, consider yourself a recipient of it.
For the finals “I’d like to come down for four or five weeks, really, to get a feel for what’s going on.”
Ken Barba still won’t reveal exactly what his whistles sound like or what instruction they carry. It’s been a family secret for two decades and it’s staying one. Asked how his son’s junior coaches felt when their father was standing in the outer signalling moves with shrill signals no-one else understood, Ben Barba’s father laughed.
“They probably wished I wasn’t there.”
But … “If they make the grand final this year, and I see something, even with 70,000 people in the stadium, I reckon he’ll still hear the whistle ……”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK