First tackle will be hardest for Barnett

Dave Hadfield talks to the Kiwi who has overcome a horrific injury
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The Independent Online

One good thing about what happened to Richie Barnett when New Zealand played Australia six months ago is that he can remember next to nothing about the Kiwis' humiliating 52-0 defeat. That was, however, the only good thing about it, The reason for his memory lapse is that an accidental clash of heads with Wendell Sailor left him with horrendous facial injuries that threatened to end the career which he resumes today.

One good thing about what happened to Richie Barnett when New Zealand played Australia six months ago is that he can remember next to nothing about the Kiwis' humiliating 52-0 defeat. That was, however, the only good thing about it, The reason for his memory lapse is that an accidental clash of heads with Wendell Sailor left him with horrendous facial injuries that threatened to end the career which he resumes today.

"He hit me pretty much with his forehead, flush across the nose," he recalls painfully. "I knew immediately that there was something drastically wrong." That was something of an understatement. On either side of his nose - just - both cheekbones were shattered. It has taken painstaking plastic surgery to piece it all together again and he still has 10 plates in his face.

He suffers from numbness to this day around his features, but more important to him was the prospect of never playing rugby league again. Initially ruled out of not just his domestic season with the Sydney Roosters but also the World Cup, it took months before the possibility that he might make it to England began to dawn on him. "I started to feel a bit better, then I started to train and things really began to improve," he says.

That was good news for the Kiwi coach, Frank Endacott, who had made Barnett his captain and had then been forced to write him out of the script for the World Cup campaign. "Frank just said, 'We're not going to try to talk you into it. It's up to you.' He gave me as much time as I needed and, two months ago, I got clearance from my plastic surgeon and decided I would play."

Having made that decision, he is thrown in at the deep end this afternoon, leading the Kiwis in their opening match of the Lincoln Financial Group Rugby League World Cup against the notoriously rugged Lebanese at Kingsholm in Gloucester. "I won't really know that it's right until I start playing - and they will test it out for me. I have to expect that."

Put that way, it all sounds like a risky procedure for a man whose features are held together by an underpinning of plastic, but Endacott is not surprised to see him back in harness. "It's a credit to him as a professional that he's come back to this stage after horrific injuries like his," he says. "It's the mark of the bloke that he's done it. It means a hell of a lot to have him back. They say no player is irreplaceable, but he was getting very close to it."

Endacott, who also brings back his former captain, Quentin Pongia, after six months out with a severed tendon in his bicep, has learned to rely on Barnett's capabilities at full-back, where he ranks alongside Australia's Darren Lockyer as the best in the game.

It is that trans-Tasman rivalry that forms a major part of his motivation for this tournament. Even though he does not remember the details, he knows that New Zealand were embarrassed last time the two countries met and sees the World Cup as an opportunity to set the record straight, when they meet in the latter stages.

"This is our chance to redeem something from this year. Both Quentin and I are really staunch Kiwi players and this is our opportunity to get back at them. The circumstances weren't good last time. The preparation was very poor. This time the preparation has been great and we will be ready for them," Barnett says.

First, there is the small matter of qualifying from a group involving Wales and the Cook Islands as well as the Lebanese. After that, his plan is to finish his career playing in a third country - after New Zealand and Australia - by joining the London Broncos in the Tetley's Super League.

It is not something he particularly had in mind, but the Roosters decided, after being without him for most of the year, not to take up the final year of his contract. "I wanted to play in England," Barnett says. "I've been to all the places in the rugby league heartlands and I love it up there, but my manager only had an offer from London. I'm looking forward to it, because we're going to have a pretty useful side next year."

Provided Barnett's face holds together, London supporters are in for a treat. In cover defence or running the ball back in counter-attacking mode, the New Zealand captain is one of the better sights in rugby league.

His return to action this afternoon marks him out not just as one of the code's best players, but also one of its bravest. "I've trained hard, but you don't do any full contact until you get into a match," he says. There will be a collective intake of breath from the Kiwi camp and its supporters when he makes that first tackle.

"It's good to be back," he says. Followers of the game everywhere will hope that he still feels that way at five o'clock this afternoon.

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