It is an undertone as England prepare for a campaign that could yield an unprecedented third successive Grand Slam. Throughout this success one particular question has niggled: Rob Andrew is the man in possession, but is he the best outside-half the country has got? Could England challenge Australia and New Zealand with an alternative? If the answer is in the affirmative then that alternative must be Barnes.
Take last Saturday. The Bath outside-half played for the Barbarians against Australia with word-perfect accomplishment. He looked like a current international in thought and action although his last appearance for England was against Fiji in Suva four and a half years ago. He had an assurance given only to sportsmen who know they are masters of their trade.
His contribution to his side's first try was decisive. He accelerated hard, drawing Australia's defence and then, at the last feasible moment, threaded a pass through the congested midfield to his threequarters, and eventually Ian Hunter went over in the corner.
It was a perfect example of the outside-half's art, a cameo of timing, tactical acumen and speed. A masterpiece in securing space, and time, for the men outside him. 'Possibly no other stand-off in these islands could have done what Barnes did,' Steve Bale, of the Independent, wrote. At the same time Barnes' club, Bath, was being embarrassed by Waterloo in the Pilkington Cup. 'We missed Stuart,' their coach, Jack Rowell, said. 'Our game revolves around him and the backs couldn't function without him.' Four of those backs were internationals.
For England, whose threequarters have also not always functioned as a unit equal to the amalgamation of their individual talents, there must be a temptation to select a man who will play closer to the edge in chasing an attacking option. But perhaps not. Last month Geoff Cooke, the England manager, said: 'Stuart does some things better than Rob Andrew, but Rob is the man in possession and he does some things better than Stuart. Rob is outstanding defensively, is good kicking from his hands and has good vision.'
Pursuing why Andrew (50 caps) is the man in possession and not Barnes (8) goes down a path which examines the Bath man's psyche, and his history. He scored a try 100 seconds into his senior debut with Newport, but then left to join Bristol en route to his present club, both moves causing offence with those he left. Even today it is not unknown for Barnes, who lives in Bristol, to be the target of abuse in his home town.
Turning his back on his country, however, caused most consternation. Twice he has made himself unavailable for England, in 1987 and 1989, a sin more pardonable if he had forgone opportunities to make his forthright opinions known. Selectors, some would say not unreasonably, have preferred Andrew, a safe pair of hands in physical and personality terms, to a talent which may or may not be committed to his country's cause.
Except that Barnes, too, has returned to the England fold, his differences forgotten, his remarks seemingly forgiven. The maverick has become an integral part of the international set-up, captaining the B team in New Zealand last summer and playing as well as he has ever done. With Andrew ineligible to play for Wasps in Courage Championship matches until the New Year, his rival is pursuing the place against France in January with the enthusiasm of a man nearing something he has been previously denied. Hammering at the door.
'I've stated categorically that I think I'm a better player than Rob,' he said. 'Which may sound arrogant but I've always qualified that by saying outside-halves have to feel that way. Playing last week against Australia I felt extremely confident; I had a lot of time and felt relaxed. If I were a selector I'd certainly pick myself. I don't think I pose the same sort of personal problems that I may have in the past. I'm far more relaxed. If I get fed up with something I shrug my shoulders, smile and walk off. I can do that now. I've been pretty volatile in the past and my basic instincts are still towards the volcanic, but I've got myself under control and I'm able to stand back. Outsiders would probably say I'm a little bit more mature.'
Tact and Barnes were rarely synonymous from the moment he returned from New Zealand in 1985 as a rare English success only to be displaced by Andrew for the Five Nations' Championship. 'That was the start of my grievance,' he said. 'I was dropped without playing badly. I didn't see the reason. I couldn't see any justification. A little bit of disillusionment crept in and, once you get bitter, the positive side of you goes and you become a lesser player.'
Barnes' resentment smouldered with every match on the bench until 1987 when it fanned into outright rejection of international rugby. 'I was very disenchanted,' he said. 'I felt the selection system was wrong and that I should be getting more opportunities. I wasn't getting them and I was becoming depressed. If it had been a situation where I felt there was someone better than me then I'd have carried on.
'The irony, which most people didn't pick up, was that by the time I quit the England set-up my form had gone and I don't think I was worthy of a place on the bench. I wanted to enjoy my rugby, it's an amateur game after all, and the way things were going I wasn't going to last very long because I was getting stale. So I stepped out of it.'
He returned briefly before opting out again because of work commitments in what appeared to be his final international exit. It seemed then that Barnes, an engaging extrovert who has recently turned 30, was going to be a wasted talent, one never fully plumbed at the highest level. It was the fear that he might regret not giving it 'one last shot', plus a change of job, that needled him back from exile.
Since then the international outside-half in waiting has been exemplary, doing his bench duty and adding an experienced lead to the B team. 'With some justification the selectors wanted to see how great my commitment was,' he said. 'I believe I was extremely committed to the B team last year and I've done everything asked of me again this year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I've done my penance, if you like, and proved I'm committed to the cause.'
So committed that he has also returned to captain the South- West in the Divisional Championship, a format he described in the past as 'a turn-off'. That too has become a priority, the best shop window he will have if Andrew continues to keep him out of the England team. 'Divisional matches are national trials and should be treated as such,' he said. 'It's in every player's interest to perform well in them.'
And in Barnes' case the more so with a Lions tour to New Zealand at stake next summer. Two stand- offs will be picked and at the moment the choice would seem to lie between Barnes, Andrew and Scotland's Craig Chalmers.
'I'd be a liar if I said I didn't want to go,' Barnes said. 'I dearly want to. I have achieved as much as anyone possibly could do at club level and I want the opportunity to do it at a higher stage. I think a New Zealand tour is about as high as you can get. But I need to break back into the England team to give myself a strong chance as opposed to a reasonable chance, which is how I evaluate it at the moment.'
But surely that opens him up to more potential disappointment and disillusionment? 'No. I've set my targets to give myself a chance to play international rugby by playing as well as I can. I've accepted I'm not a selector and no matter how much I may disagree with the selection process there's nothing I can do about it. If I've played as well as I can I'll be able to accept it. I've got to play so well and so consistently that they can't keep overlooking me.'
An early opportunity will be on Saturday when he captains the South-West against London. The opposing captain is Rob Andrew.
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