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NRL star suspended to face his 'issues'

Downward spiral ... Ben Barba.

Downward spiral ... Ben Barba. Photo: Getty Images

THE curse of the face of the NRL continues. But Ben Barba's sudden spiral from the player anointed to launch the new season on Wednesday night to being suspended indefinitely by the Bulldogs, due to "a number of issues in his personal life", is slightly different. Being the face of the game was one of those issues.

Barba, who was stood down after a meeting with the chief executive, Todd Greenberg, coach Des Hasler and his manager Gavin Orr on Sunday, joins a growing list of players to fall foul of the season launch.

In 2009, Manly fullback Brett Stewart was suspended for bringing the game into disrepute, following his arrest days after launching that season. He was later acquitted of sexually assaulting a teenage girl.

Wests Tigers five-eighth Benji Marshall launched the 2011 season but days later was charged with assaulting a man after a charity function at The Rocks. The charge was later dismissed.

But the curse of being the face of the game remained. Since Marshall's troubles, the NRL has been careful not to make a grand announcement of the player chosen to cut the ribbon. Barba was anointed with little fanfare.

But it had clearly been troubling him. "He was lumped with it. If he could have made it go away, he would have," said a source close to Barba.

But that was just one of a "multitude" of problems. The Bulldogs have been aware that Barba, 23, whose form last year led to his being crowned the Dally M player of the year and took his side to the grand final, has had off-field issues for some time. He has been struggling with gambling, spending, alcohol and the breakdown of his relationship with Ainslie Curry, the mother of his two daughters, before Christmas.

"Ben Barba is ill. He needs some help," Greenberg said at a news conference on Monday.

"There are a multitude of issues in the reasoning behind us standing him down. Ben has lost his way and we need to help him find his way back."

The NRL, fully supportive of the Bulldogs' actions, quickly scrambled another player to take the honour of opening the season. They decided on the Cowboys, Queensland and Australian five-eighth Johnathan Thurston. "Thurston steps into the season launch role with Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba now unavailable," the NRL statement read.

A hospital pass it might appear, but Thurston accepted. Whether he did so gladly, it is not clear.

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