Canterbury's top dog Steve Mortimer paid his old club's new excitement machine Ben Barba the ultimate compliment last night when he said he was the fullback's No.1 supporter.
Barba stole centre stage in last night's 32-18 victory over North Queensland with three tries. He stamped his mark in the 12th, 28th and then the 78th minutes when he seized on some great passes to establish himself as the premiership's leading tryscorer with 17 for the season.
''Every time he touches the ball I get on the edge of my seat,'' said Mortimer, who starred in the club's legendary ''Entertainers'' and ''Enforcers'' eras. ''He's a beautiful player, I think he's a blessing for the way Canterbury play.
''They're very structured with what [coach] Des Hasler does and then you have someone like Ben Barba [who] creates his own song. At the risk of upsetting these kids who idolise him I'm going to declare here and now I'm the No.1 Ben Barba fan.''
It wasn't a flawless display by the 23-year-old. In the second half he slipped over while trying to defuse a Johnathan Thurston kick that bounced about in the Bulldogs in-goal and he watched as opposition winger Antonio Winterstein scored. He also kicked a ball out on the full, but his two long-range tries in the opening 28 minutes provide Canterbury with the early advantage in what had been an old-fashioned arm wrestle.
North Queensland, however, had their own tricks. In the 17th minute, fullback Matt Bowen, every bit as exciting as his Bulldogs opponent, kicked a crossfield grubber close to Canterbury's try line which split Barba and Krisnan Inu.
Centre Kane Linnett's try made the score 6-6 but a series of frustrating errors and Barba's second four-pointer had the visitors on the back foot. Their task to prevent Canterbury recording their ninth consecutive victory became even harder in the 35th minute when Inu scored his eighth try in as many matches when he collected a Josh Reynolds bomb.
Reynolds was dominant and he made some solid tackles, including one on Winterstein when he threatened to cut loose.
In the 53rd minute Bowen pulled off a try-saving tackle on a runaway Josh Morris, pushing him over the sideline as he appeared set to score.
''It was a great effort by 'Mango' but he should never have been in that position to start with,'' Cowboys co-captain Matt Scott said.
Thurston proved yet again he's at his most dangerous just when his opponents might think it's safe to breathe easy. The Bulldogs had done a great job of shutting him down for 62 minutes, but with the ball in his hands and close to their line the Bulldogs defence blinked when they should've nailed Thurston.
In the previous times Thurston was close to Canterbury's line he'd set up his support play, but with his team trailing 18-12 he threw a phantom punch the Bulldogs never saw and the five-eighth celebrated his first try of the season, while his conversion levelled the score at 18-18.
The momentum swung back in Canterbury's favour in the 69th minute when Inu kicked a penalty goal after the Cowboys were penalised for a strip. Canterbury sealed their ninth consecutive win when winger Sam Perrett leapt high to score off a Reynolds kick and Barba barged over.
Hasler was pleased by the way Joel Romelo and Josh Jackson filled in for injured pair Kris Keating and Sam Kasiano.
BULLDOGS 32 (B Barba 3 K Inu S Perrett tries K Inu 6 goals) bt NORTH QUEENSLAND 18 (K Linnett J Thurston A Winterstein tries J Thurston 3 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: Shayne Hayne, Gerard Sutton. Crowd: 15,650.