Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: The free spirit who liberated his countrymen

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The Independent Online
SO everything worked out happily for Stuart Barnes. The way it happened was theatrical but gratifyingly it was not staged. Nothing laid down on the practice ground could suppress a talent for the unusual that enabled England to win in a style that had almost disappeared from the minds of their supporters. 'Wasn't it great,' people could be heard saying as the Twickenham crowd dispersed.

In truth it was never a contest to quicken the pulse, fate turning wickedly against Scotland after only 24 minutes when they lost Craig Chalmers's pivotal influence, but, especially with one stroke of glorious improvisation early in the second half, Barnes made it memorable.

To realise that he had never previously started a match in the championship was to question the philosophy that has come to prevail in team games, to wonder what the future holds for free spirits. Indeed there is no guarantee that Barnes, at 30, is now a fixture in the team. Twenty-three appearances on the substitutes bench may make for a suspicion that the experience could be ephemeral. Ireland in Dublin? 'I don't go around criticising the selectors,' he said. 'But if I'm not chosen for that game there could be a tantrum.'

It would be justified; after only eight caps, a performance to gladden the hearts of romantics. Not perfect by any means (a decent club player would have bettered his sloppy kicking at restarts), but that is all part of the Barnes equation. Coaches are inclined to mistrust natural brilliance unless it is clearly subordinate to the team effort. Because they operate in the main from a firm basis of reliability they often find it difficult to accommodate the maestro's shortcomings. Thus Alf Ramsey went into the 1966 World Cup final without Jimmy Greaves, one of football's most prolific goalscorers.

Probably for purposes of tradition, the England management were not inclined to single out Barnes for special praise. 'A number of people played well,' the manager, Geoff Cooke, said when going back over the contest. The captain, Will Carling, was also reluctant to turn up the spotlight on his outside-half.

It has to be said that Barnes did indeed benefit from playing in a team who finally got their feared act together. What price flair if the passes do not stick?

However, and considering that they were bettered overall at the line-out, it was not the grinding efficiency of England's pack that threatened to result in a rout until Scotland staged a valiant rally. The damage was done by a stocky free-thinker who gives unquestioning conformity the derision it deserves. In this he was marvellously assisted by Jeremy Guscott, their Bath alliance perfect in the try that finally put paid to Scotland's hopes of a Triple Crown.

With England's attack wrongfooted by a careless pass, the only sensible option open to Barnes was a kick. Given time and breath, doubtless Carling would have ordered it, and it was not much of a guess that the management expected it. Instead, Barnes excitingly let his heart rule his head. First a feint, then a quick- footed surge through the first line of defence that opened space for a long pass to Guscott.

Sensationally developing the move with blinding pace, Guscott drew what was left of Scotland's defence and sent Rory Underwood over. Out of nothing, indeed a moment of crisis for England, had come one of the best tries Twickenham has seen.

As it turned out, Scotland kept the game going and won a great deal of praise for the stubbornness of their resistance after losing Chalmers. 'He has been playing the best rugby of his career,' the Scottish captain, Gavin Hastings, said disconsolately.

Such are the vagaries of sport. For one outside-half the rotten luck of an injury that will preclude consideration for the Lions tour this summer. For the other, a golden experience that will last down all his days. Today if somebody were to ask what a real outside-half looked like, whose image would come to mind?

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