BULLDOGS 20 STORM 4
Hometown hero ... Ben Barba of the Bulldogs. Photo: Getty Images
An hour after engineering the try of the season, Canterbury fullback Ben Barba seemed to be hyperventilating as he was interviewed, sucking in short, sharp breaths as if his life depended on it.
Asked if he was OK, the Queensland State of Origin hopeful answered: ''I'm still in shock. I'm still coming to terms with today.''
When Barba took the ball just inside his own in-goal on April 1 and screamed up Skilled Park before putting Josh Morris over for a 100-metre try, former Bulldogs players said they could not remember the club posting a longer-range touchdown.
Yesterday, on Barba's home turf of Mackay Stadium with his side leading competition frontrunners Melbourne 14-4 and five minutes left, Barba did better. This time he gathered a kick on his own dead-ball line. This time he didn't go close to bombing the try by passing at the wrong time, kicking instead. This time Morris finished a movement that had spanned 110 metres.
Barba was greeted by his father in the tunnel as he left the field. Cousins, siblings, uncles and aunts joined him in the sheds. ''There's more of my family inside the sheds now than teammates,'' he said, still puffing.
After being kept in under 20s longer than most Bulldogs fans could tolerate, after being lampooned for his defence and his security under the high ball, Barba only had to spend a Sunday afternoon back home to become an elite player.
The irregular breathing and shaking late yesterday may prove to have been future shock. ''I knew, coming and playing for my friends and family that I grew up with, I was always going to be nervous,'' he said.
''It's a dream come true to come home here. It's another thing to beat a side like Melbourne - as I said - in front of my family and friends.
''I gave all the tickets to my mum that I could possibly get and I told everyone 'Deal with her and I'll talk to you after the game.' I'm lucky I've got a pretty organised mum.''
Recalling the moment he picked up the lolling ball, Barba said: ''I was trying to blow it dead. Luckily I picked it up, there wasn't too much pressure on me. I can improve … I dropped a bomb there.''
Barba, 23, had scored the Bulldogs' first try after nine minutes of a physical, uncompromising contest, when he beat Cooper Cronk to a Josh Reynolds banana kick.
''There were a couple of things we wanted to do when he had the footy,'' Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy said in reference to Barba. ''We did it eight out of 10 times. When you don't do it, he comes up with that 100-metre effort like he did at the end.''
Melbourne captain Cameron Smith even compared Barba with … ''Billy Slater … he had a few errors in him early on and now he's a world-class player, he's the best fullback in the game. Benny's put himself in that category now. He's got a fair bit to go to be at Bill's standards.''
Krisnan Inu made it 10-0 with a try scored under similar circumstances in the 32nd minute and Melbourne pegged one back just after the break with Anthony Quinn's score - also off a kick.
Then came the flashpoint of the first premiership match played in Mackay - one that had been scheduled for Adelaide.
Ryan Hinchcliffe forced his way over for Melbourne but video referee Sean Hampstead ruled teammate Bryan Norrie had illegally obstructed the defence. It was a ruling that left Bellamy not best-pleased.
''It was a big turning point, huge,'' Bellamy said. ''I don't know how much he actually interfered, Bryan Norrie. We're just a little bit confused with some of the decisions at the moment. They're all inconsistent, I suppose. To me, it [the try] looked like it was OK.''
Further tries to Inu and Morris secured a victory that has the Bulldogs four competition points adrift of Melbourne and closing.
CANTERBURY 20 (K Inu 2, B Barba, J Morris tries; K Inu 2 goals) bt MELBOURNE 4 (A Quinn try) at Virgin Australia Stadium. Referees: Gavin Badger, Ben Cummins. Crowd: 11,876.