Rugby League

Michael Ennis tips Ben Barba to return to his prime for ambitious Cronulla Sharks

Michael Ennis believes the new season could spark a revival of the old Ben Barba, who tested the patience of Sharks fans last year with a patchy campaign that ended on the Cronulla bench.

This year, Ennis has a feeling the flashing feet and blinding speed of the former Dally M winner could return, with Barba free of rib and ankle injuries that shackled him in 2015.

Barba joined the Sharks from Brisbane, where his fortunes had begun to fall, but he was shuffled through positions and became a bench impact weapon for coach Shane Flanagan.

The constant injuries go some way to explaining his lack of potency last season but Ennis said Barba's speed and performance at the Auckland Nines was evidence the 26-year-old was on the verge of returning to his best.

The veteran rake said there was no hiding from the criticism of Barba and players could only be judged on their output. But he said it would be deeply unwise for opposition defences to underestimate a motivated Barba, who is locked in a three-way scrap for the fullback jumper with Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird.

"Ben has had a terrific summer. He's worked tirelessly on his game. A lot of people last year were quick to judge Ben on form. But the guy had to spend a whole summer at five-eighth, as well moving from another club and carrying a rib and ankle injury for most of the season, which not everyone knew about," Ennis said.

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"We're judged on our performance, we all know that. But he's had a smooth summer injury-wise, he's spent the whole time at fullback, which is the position he excels and enjoys.

"It's good to see him get on the outside of [Kalifa] Faifai Loa the other day and put the foot down. That's all he needed. The confidence with him is really starting to grow and he's going to be a huge bonus for us at Cronulla this year."

Given Cronulla's excellent effort in 2015, where they fell deep in the finals to a rampant North Queensland, a resurgent Barba may be exactly what they need to prove they are one of the elite outfits.

They have recruited strongly, adding James Maloney and Chad Townsend to the halves, all of which means Holmes, Bird and Barba are racing for limited spots.

Holmes was one of the breakout players of 2015 and Bird has obvious upside as a developing playmaker. But Ennis said it had been Barba that had spent most time at fullback in the pre-season and the matter would only be settled during trial games.

"Valentine had periods last year where he played bits and pieces for us [at fullback]. I haven't seen Jack play there at all other than the fact all three of them have trained excellently over the summer," Ennis said. 

"The trial period will actually be a trial period for us."

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