St Helens v Hull FC: Jamie Shaul’s chance to eclipse Ben Barba

Key player: Hull FC's Jamie Shaul.
Key player: Hull FC's Jamie Shaul.
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TONIGHT it is the turn of Hull FC to try and answer the seemingly unfathomable conundrum: how to silence Ben Barba.

The campaign is just nine games old but the brilliant St Helens full-back is already more than living up to his pre-season billing as favourite to win the 2018 Man of Steel.

They like their exciting Australians at Saints, from Mal Meninga marauding around in the early 80s to the silkier Matt Gidley and Jamie Lyon during the summer era.

Even though he only signed last May and did not debut until August – Barba had to serve a 12-game ban held over for failing a drugs test in the NRL – his potent attacking displays have already seen him being talked about in that same exalted company.

Indeed, ask anyone who has watched Saints this term and they will urge you to see him soon.

That is because, of course, even though Barba signed a two-and-a-half-year deal with Saints after a short stint with Toulon ended in acrimony, there is a fear he may not still be around on these shores come 2019.

It will be a real challenge for us. It’s one we look forward to, though, to try and negate his threat. As a coach, that’s one I always enjoy and, as a player, it’s the same. Jamie Shaul will be really looking forward to it.

Hull FC head coach, Lee Radford

Now his suspension in Australia is complete, clubs will be clamouring to take home a player who won their Dally M Medal in 2012.

Barba then helped Cronulla Sharks to their first premiership four years later before he hit that low just days later when tested positive for cocaine.

There were flashes towards the end of last term of his wonderful footballing vision and, in 2018, that has turned into a full technicolour vista for the early leaders.

With 10 tries, the only person in front of Barba in Super League’s top try-scorer list is Hull’s own Fetuli Talanoa (11) while his nine assists are only bettered by Wigan’s England half-back George Williams.

No-one compares when it comes to tackle busts, mind, the former Canterbury Bulldogs star’s 57 easily surpassing Saints colleague Mark Percival, who sits in second spot with 47.

Barba is in the top-10 for clean breaks, too, averaging at least one per game but these statistics only tell half the story; people expect things to happen when he is on the ball, an unquantifiable quality.

“Everything he’s touching seems to result in a try,” Hull coach Lee Radford told The Yorkshire Post, ahead of facing prolific opponents who have lost just once so far versus Leeds Rhinos.

“We’re going to have to do a great job on him particularly when they go wide and it’s just three on three as he can find a short pass, a long pass and he can kick it through or go himself, too.

“He’s a very talented ball-player and he’s putting bums on seats. He’s that type of player.

“Saints are flying. Justin Holbrook’s done a real good job since he’s been there. They came real close to making a GF last season and, in Barba, have a bloke who is just on fire at the moment.

“It will be a real challenge for us on Friday. It’s one we look forward to, though, to try and negate his threat. As a coach, that’s one I always enjoy and, as a player, it’s the same. Jamie Shaul will be really looking forward to it.”

Jamie Shaul: FC’s own daring, elusive and thrilling No 1.

No-one will ever say the Hull-born player enjoys the same quality as the man he tackles tonight but he undoubtedly has many similar traits to make him one of Super League’s most exciting talents.

That said, as he prepares to take on Barba – and what can be an exhausting experience both physically and mentally – he may be glad of the breather afforded him on Easter Monday.

Then, Radford gave the 25-year-old a rare rest after his exploits in the Good Friday derby win over Hull KR so he should be refreshed for tonight’s encounter, like Kiwi centre Carlos Tuimavave and captain Danny Houghton as well.

But Shaul can certainly learn from Barba. Many people cannot understand why the talented Yorkshireman has not yet represented England given his kick-returning prowess, finishing skill and improved defensive game.

However, one reason is he is still yet to master some areas of distribution, most notably the cut-out ball to a winger, now such a trait of the modern-day No 1 and something that looks second-nature to the 28-year-old Barba.

Radford concurred: “For sure, being able to put that long pass on is key. Shauly has a lovely touch on his kick and we probably don’t see that enough.

“We know he can pass short – we’ve seen him do that – but finding that long one is part of his game we’re continuously working on. It’s not there yet but you have to remember as well that getting the depth of that line is critical, too, in those plays.

“Depending on the numbers, lots can happen, including the edge defence coming in to belt you if that depth isn’t right so there’s a lot more going on than just the pass. But we’re on it.”

Hull were never in the race to sign Barba – “We were at cap and up with our quota spots so that never happened,” said Radford– but if they can stop him and Shaul shines, a fourth successive win is in touch.