Not even the prospect of having Ben Barba fit in time for an NRL title tilt could excite coach Des Hasler after Canterbury spectacularly fell at the final hurdle ahead of the playoffs.
The usually softly spoken Hasler could not hide his frustration over Thursday night’s 16-11 loss to lowly Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium – but went back to his low key ways when asked about Barba’s head space.
The stage was set for the Bulldogs to cruise into next week’s sudden death finals clash when they lined up against a Brisbane side keen to draw the curtain on their worst season in club history.
Especially after Barba was dramatically cleared from a long term ankle injury – albeit just days after an NRL probe was launched into the club’s early season suspension of the Dally M Medallist.
However, a butterfingered Bulldogs were their own worst enemies as Brisbane claimed a rare victory despite next year’s prized recruit Barba inspiring a Krisnan Inu try that locked up the scores 10-10 in the 56th minute.
Hasler said he wasn’t even confident of victory when halfback Trent Hodkinson appeared to break Brisbane’s spirit with a 72nd minute field goal that made it 11-10 to the visitors.
“Not really mate. It wasn’t a good performance,” Hasler complained.
“I thought we tackled fantastic. But that doesn’t matter.
“We can be a real force in the semi-finals, we just have to do a simple thing like hang onto the ball.”
Asked how his side would get their minds back on the job next week, Hasler said: “Well it’s sudden death from here on in.”
But it remains to be seen where Barba’s head is at next week.
The dynamic fullback started on the bench and was understandably rusty after weeks battling injury.
However, it was debatable whether it was his time away from football or the old wounds reopened by the NRL probe that was the cause.
The woman at the centre of the NRL integrity unit investigation – Barba’s partner Ainslie Currie – appeared on the matchwinner’s mind on Thursday with the initials “AC” clearly seen written on his wristband.
Currie had approached the club earlier this year with concerns over the star fullback’s welfare.
Allegations have since emerged Currie had been the victim of physical abuse when she went to the Bulldogs.
Asked how important it was to get Barba back playing after the latest off-field distraction, Hasler said: “It was more him getting that match fitness, getting his timing back.
“He had some nice touches for someone who has been out for five weeks.”
Asked if Barba’s head was right, Hasler simply nodded before the Bulldogs media man ended the press conference with an abrupt “thank you”.