Rugby Union: Barnes the prodigal runs out of returns: Game will be the poorer through loss of an outstanding outside-half. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
THE SEMINAL moment for Stuart Barnes came when he and other England players were coaching the township kids of Zwide outside Port Elizabeth. Out of fitness and out of favour, he saw precisely how important his groin strain was: not at all, compared with the deprivation of those marvellously receptive children.

A few hundred yards from the Dan Qeqe Stadium was a shanty- town, a mangle of rotting corrugated iron set in a sea of mud. No hot shower to go home to. For Barnes, who has spent much of his adulthood fighting apartheid, rugby was suddenly the last thing worth worrying about.

So, no longer enjoying the game and anyway fed up with his injuries and failure to break back into the England team, he peremptorily retired on his arrival home from the South African tour. Without the prodigal who returned from two periods of self-imposed exile from England consideration and innumerable jousts at authority, rugby is immeasurably the poorer.

These days dedication - to training, to lifestyle, to the right food, and definitely not to claret and cuisine - is the thing. Yet for Barnes, dedication simply meant enjoying this not-so-amateur game, even if he was not averse to picking up a bit on the side from writing about it. He and Ian Beer, the Rugby Football Union president, may agree on very little but they do on this: that it should be fun.

Barnes was not always quite so nonchalant. At various times in his early career his eye for the main chance - as keen as for a midfield gap - caused him to terminate an old loyalty in favour of a new. From Newport, to Bristol, to Bath, the peripatetic outside- half finally settled down amid the Georgian splendour in 1985, since when his loyalty has been unshakeable. If only as a coach, they have not seen the last of him at the Rec.

He is the proud holder of a record 11 caps for Welsh Schools and when he was winning them he was universally recognised as a sensational talent. Welsh Schools? Yes indeed, if we go back to Barnes's rugby origins, we go to precisely where the contradictions begin.

Having been born in Grays, Essex, and moved to Newport at 11, Barnes was only ever Welsh in the way Rupert Moon is now. But the Newport club carefully nurtured him and as soon as he was 18 he began his senior career wearing the famed black-and-amber, confirming everything anyone had dared hope by scoring a try after 100 seconds of his debut.

I know because, as they say, I was there; we all thought we might have a new John or Bennett on our hands. Barnes was in the Wales squad as a teenager and Newport wanted to build their back division around him as outside-half, but he had led the schools from full-back and wanted to play there.

So he joined Bristol - and promptly moved to outside-half, where he won three Blues for Oxford University and first came up against a certain Rob Andrew. And finally there was Bath, which has been his salvation during a decade in which he has averaged a paltry one cap a year and four of the 10 were as a replacement.

Barnes, 31, is three months older than Andrew, whom he preceded into the England team. His contretemps with authority go back to his earliest international days, when he made way for Andrew after one cap and then emerged as one of the few successes of the calamitous New Zealand tour of 1985 only to be passed over at the next opportunity.

He duly gave the then selectors his indiscreet opinion, did likewise when he angrily opted out of the England set-up in 1987 and, though his second exile in 1989 was couched more diplomatically, he has also been known to give Geoff Cooke the benefit of his acid tongue.

Only on his final recall - by Cooke - for the Scotland game of 1993 did we at last see Barnes at his barnstorming Bath best for England, but it was a fleeting return and even the elevation of his club coach and mentor, Jack Rowell, to the England management has made no difference.

'I still believe that, if I'd been given given chances and second lives like others, I would have established myself,' Barnes said. How ironic that had this Essex man remained an adopted Welshman, he would have done just that.