IF YOU thought that the Bulldogs' links with Manly begin and end with Des Hasler, think again. One of the key men in shaping the career of the in-form player in the competition, fullback Ben Barba, is the father of Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans.
Troy Evans was Barba's coach Mackay Brothers in 2007, when Barba made his move to Sydney and the Bulldogs. ''He played about 10 games before he went to Sydney, and scored 22 tries,'' said Evans, still coaching at the club.
Evans smirks at the prospect of a grand final between Manly and the Bulldogs. He has a soft spot for Barba; when he visits Sydney to watch Daly play, he also tries to take in a game involving his former fullback as well.
Barba was his star player in 2007. His form proved crucial to his team's success but also to Barba's eventual move to Sydney towards the end of that year.
But it would be a rival coach who would tip the Bulldogs on to the player. Ben Anderson, the coach of Moranbah and the son of former Bulldogs great Chris Anderson, had watched his team get beaten by Barba's Mackay team. Then he watched him earn man-of-the-match honours for the Mackay Sea Eagles district team in the Foley Shield clash with Townsville in Sarina. Knowing he would face Barba and the Brothers outfit a few weeks later, Anderson phoned the then-recruitment manager Peter Mulholland at the Bulldogs.
''I asked Pete if he could get him down in the next two weeks because I didn't want to play him two weeks later,'' Anderson laughed. Sure enough, Anderson's Moranbah side became the first team that year to beat Mackay, who were without their star player.
''He was just a freak,'' said Anderson, now coaching Tweed Heads in the Intrust Super Cup. ''You'd have four, five or six good sets in a row, but then he'd either make a break or take an intercept and run 80 metres. It'd break your heart.''
Anderson's uncle, Kevin Moore, was then a lower-grade coach at the Bulldogs - one reason why Anderson didn't choose his other former club, Melbourne. The other was that the Storm had by then already unearthed Billy Slater.
Barba signed with the Bulldogs, played in the club's Jersey Flegg side and still made it back to Mackay to watch his former side win the grand final, carrying the water for them. ''We still got Ben [Anderson] in the end,'' Evans laughed.
The following year, Barba scored 28 tries in 20 matches in the inaugural National Youth Competition, finding himself in the team of the year in the process. ''He was making sides look terrible - standing blokes up one-on-one, taking intercepts and running a hundred metres,'' his Toyota Cup coach, Andrew Patmore, said. ''When he arrived, it was Ewan McGrady all over again.''
But looks were slightly deceiving. ''He was still a bit off and on,'' Patmore said. ''He was a natural talent and he could do some freakish things … but he could also just cruise through.''
Bulldogs supporters and some officials still campaigned for Barba's inclusion in first grade, but then-coach Steve Folkes refused to budge. He made his debut in late 2008, but even the following season, under a new coach in Moore, he spent significant time in the lower grades. He did so largely in Premier League, with Moore saying: ''He needed to be playing against men and he needed to be playing with men.''
Those who waited to bring him in at the right time firmly believe that their patience has led to what we see today, one of the best players in the competition; someone with incredible attacking gifts but also the uncanny ability to stop his opponents from scoring as well.
''It was coming from the fans, the media, and some people in the club … but I had my own thoughts, and I stuck with what I thought,'' Folkes said. ''He wasn't ready for first grade. ''Everyone was telling me he was ready, but I knew he wasn't. That probably turned out to be the making of him. If we'd brought him up then, it would have dented his confidence. It wouldn't have done him any good.''