SYDNEY (Reuters) - Former Wallabies coach John Connolly believes rugby league convert Ben Barba might have the talent to make it in the 15-man game at Toulon but should be prepared for steep learning curve in his first year in France.
The 27-year-old fullback signed a deal reported in local media to be worth A$2.5 million ($1.91 million) over two and a half years to join the Top 14 side with immediate effect.
Barba’s National Rugby League (NRL) career had stalled when he was handed a 12-game ban for testing positive for cocaine last November.
In October, the fleet-footed former winner of the Dally M medal as Australia’s Player of the Year had helped Cronulla Sharks to a maiden NRL title in their 50th year of existence.
The positive test was the latest setback in a career that has also been disrupted by alcohol, gambling and anger management issues.
Connolly, who coached in France with Stade Francais, thinks the player has gone to the wrong place if he is looking for an easy ride.
“One thing you have to come to grips with if you’re the foreign player or coach is that you’re very much the hired gun,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
”If you perform, you’ll fit it, if you don’t the trap door will swallow you up before you can say Jack Robinson.
”He’s going to a strong club and Ma‘a Nonu, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell will still be there, which will help him through it.
“His talent might get him through. Regardless of who comes across, it’s always hard in your first year.”
Connolly said his experience of managing the transition of league convert Willie Carne at Queensland in the late 1990s had taught him that finding space with two extra men on the pitch might be Barba’s biggest problem.
“(Carne) adapted to all the rugby things well, like the ruck and maul. The thing he struggled with most was the lack of space,” he added.
”I would suggest that would be Barba’s challenge as well.
Barba’s move has caused some controversy in Australia with NRL chief Todd Greenberg calling on the French authorities to enforce the 12-game ban, which they are not obliged to do as the test was not conducted under World Anti-Doping Agency auspices.
The Australian Rugby Union has, however, announced that Barba will not be able to play for Toulon in an ARU-sanctioned 10-a-side tournament in Brisbane next week.
“Once we understand the sanction in detail... there will be a conversation with the (rugby federation) in France, who will be responsible for talking to their club,” ARU chief Bill Pulver told local media.
“And if the sanction does not allow him to play rugby league in Australia next weekend, he won’t be playing rugby union in Australia next weekend.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by John O'Brien