NRL boss sticking by troubled star Barba
He may no longer be the face of the game, but NRL chief executive David Smith said rugby league would not turn its back on fallen Canterbury star Ben Barba - and that the Dally M medal winner would remain a key figure in the promotion of the code.
As the NRL season was officially launched at Sydney casino The Star on Wednesday night, Smith said the game would continue to support Barba - who was to be the face of the NRL in 2013 and launch the season before he was sensationally suspended by the Bulldogs over behavioural issues.
Barba is dealing with a host of personal problems stemming from a messy break-up with his longtime partner Ainslie Currie - the mother of his two children.
North Queensland co-captain Johnathan Thurston stepped in to replace Barba for Wednesday night's formalities, but Smith, who at one stage made a gaffe in referring to Barba as "Benji" (Marshall), said the game was not abandoning the star .
"Ben remains a key part of our promotion, and so he should be," Smith said during his official speech.
"The rugby league family is proud of him and he has earned that right.
"If we are to grow the game, we must stand by and help stars like Ben when they need it most.
"It's not only the rugby league way - it's the right way."
Thurston said he had no apprehension about filling in for Barba in a role that has been somewhat of a poisoned chalice over the years.
Manly's Brett Stewart and West Tigers' Marshall both found themselves involved in ugly off-field incidents just days after being given the 'face of the game' label in the past.
"Definitely not - it's a huge honour to be here to launch the season," Thurston said of any apprehension.
"No doubt I'll bunker down for a few months and make sure nothing happens," he added with his trademark smirk.
Thurston praised Barba -a teammate when the latter scored a hattrick of tries in the All Stars game earlier this month - and the Bulldogs for their handling of a situation that went well beyond rugby league.
"This is Benny Barba we're talking about as a person not as as a rugby league player," Thurston said.
"He needs to get himself right.
"This could have been a downward spiral - you know what happens with downward spirals - people harm themselves.
"We need to make sure Benny gets his head right - hopefully he can be back on the field soon."
With a host of the game's biggest stars in his presence, Thurston completed his duty of opening the season while Jessica Mauboy belted out the anthem for the game, a re-mix of the classic Etta James track Something's Got a Hold On Me.
During his speech Thurston said there was high anticipation across the board for every club.
"Every fan, every player, every team right now is dreaming of being there on grand final day and winning the NRL premiership, myself included," he said.
"I can't wait for the season to start."