Maroons jersey still on the table
Maroons project player ... Ben Barba. Photo: Getty Images
FOOTBALL appears to be the furthest thing from the mind of Ben Barba as he begins the long process of dealing with the off-field issues that have clouded his rugby league future.
But if he needs any incentive to return to the field as soon as possible, it is the knowledge that he may need only a handful of games to be firmly in contention for a stunning State of Origin debut for Queensland.
The brilliant Bulldogs fullback has been a project player for the Maroons for a number of seasons.
He was 18th man for the second game last year and clearly identified as a mainstay of the future. Only the presence of the great Billy Slater has prevented him from suiting up.
But the form that won him the Dally M Player of the Year, completely at odds with the turmoil in his personal life, had made him a virtual banker for the 2013 series before he was ruled out indefinitely this week by Canterbury.
It may be six weeks or six months before Barba returns to the field but Fairfax Media understands Barba rockets right back into contention for the Maroons if he could get just a handful of games under his belt before the opening game in Sydney.
Slater has the fullback spot all to himself but the option of unleashing Barba from the bench would give Queensland another potent weapon.
Mal Meninga considers his Origin squad almost family and there's no chance he would be abandoned by the close-knit group. Conversely, the star fullback wouldn't be thrown into the fire if selectors and the coach don't feel he was emotionally ready.
The Queensland Rugby League declined to speak publicly about Barba but behind the scenes, he will be backed to the hilt. That sentiment was reinforced by Maroons great Steve Renouf, who has reached out to Barba in his time of need.
The champion centre said he was available to help counsel Barba should the troubled Mackay prodigy need a shoulder to lean on during his recovery from issues including drinking, gambling and the breakdown of the relationship with his girlfriend.
"We all go through a lot during our footy career. You just want to help him out," Renouf said. "If he wants a chat, I'm there to help. It's just to show we're all behind him through the hard times. It's good to know, because you can feel so isolated. Being an Aboriginal lad, it can even be a bit worse sometimes I think. You can feel a bit isolated just through that fact."
Renouf said he was confident Barba would return in 2013.