BULLDOGS fullback Ben Barba believes he has ''shut up a few people'' with his improved display under the high ball this season, admitting he was hurt by criticism but is driven by it to prove the knockers wrong.
The Dally M player of the year heads into Sunday's grand final against Melbourne widely regarded as one of the likely gamebreakers. Before his standout season he was considered by many to be highly susceptible under the bombing raids of rival kickers and too short to play the position. He believes he has turned that reputation around for minor premiers Canterbury-Bankstown this year and is pleased to no longer be regularly discussed as a liability under high balls.
''I'd like to think I shut up a few people about that,'' Barba said. ''It goes to show it's got nothing to do with just being able to catch or not, it's all about the confidence that you get from it in the mind. I'd like to think I made a few people [quiet].
''It's just about putting in the hard yards before and after training when you get the chance. It's come down to hard work and belief.''
The electrifying 23-year-old from Mackay has been assisted at the back by the Bulldogs' dominance of their rivals, limiting their opportunities to launch attacking bombs at the fullback through wave after wave of attack and suffocating defence.
Barba, a key figure of that attack, feels he has improved in defusing high balls significantly, though, and conceded he had not taken well criticism of his bomb-catching ability. Asked at yesterday's fan day at Belmore Sports Ground whether it affected him, he said: ''It does as a rugby [league] player … when people start talking about it you can't help but think about it.
''But I like to think I worked hard on it during the off-season and trying to get it all out of my mind, knowing it was a new season. I knew I had to work hard on it obviously. I like to think I did that and now it's paying off for me.''
What is also providing the Bulldogs untold benefit is another part of Barba's game that is not generally appreciated. In a season in which he has compiled 22 tries, and 23 try assists, and already collected a couple of top individual honours, it is not surprising that much attention is on his brilliant attacking game.
But the Queenslander says he is more proud of the defensive development he has made. Asked to nominate his favourite moment of the year to date he did not choose that magical 110-metre try he set up for Josh Morris against the Storm in Mackay. Instead, it was a tackle, specifically his match-winning coaxing of South Sydney's Dylan Farrell into touch with the game on the line in round 13.
''[The highlight is] some of the tackles I made,'' he said. ''Against South Sydney that day when we were 19-18 and somehow I pulled off that tackle where I put Farrell's foot into touch. It's something I tried to pride myself on this year and I know it really lifts my teammates around me. That was pretty big that night for them and I know they really lifted from that.''
Like the majority of Des Hasler's side Barba is lining up for his first NRL grand final. Like several others he had never played in a first-grade finals match before this month but he has quickly looked right at home.
''I like to think I've gone all right,'' he said. ''I haven't tried to overplay my hand or do more than what I've done in the season. I guess I've got to continue to do what's worked for me for 26 rounds of rugby league and two finals games. I'll take this game as if I'm playing round one this season - but with a bit more importance.''