Rugby Union: Twickenham Focus II: Barnes back to break the midfield mould: England look for a fresh benchmark from the maverick outside-half who tired of being left out. Steve Bale reports

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ENGLISH rugby's enfant terrible has seemed a mixed-up kid for so long that the idea that he is suddenly focusing on an unambiguous goal - the downfall of Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham this afternoon - is faintly shocking. A conformist, no less.

I mean, many of us have long enjoyed Barnes the free-thinking maverick, the left-leaning outside- half who got so fed up with England selectors that he had the radical cheek to tell them where to get off. Yet at 30 here he is: Establishment man not maybe in his heart, where lurks nigh on a decade's accumulated disenchantment, but certainly in his head.

At last Barnes is starting a Five Nations match for the first time. His previous eight caps from 1984, half of them as a replacement, culminated in the heady heights of victory in Fiji in 1988 and Barnes knows he would not even have played then had Jon Webb not departed the tour early and Rob Andrew filled in at full-back.

Rob Andrew . . . the nemesis of Barnes's England ambition going back to 1985. Barnes always felt he was better than Andrew but he has had to sit on the bench 23 times, usually as reserve to Andrew while his great rival was accumulating his half-century.

It is too late for Barnes to be given as many opportunities but, now that he has this precious one today, he has perforce to take maximum advantage. As his coach at Bath, Jack Rowell, said: 'He will probably be the most marked man ever but at least he has a chance to make up for the lost years. He's earned it.'

Barnes 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 emerged as one of the few successes of the calamitous New Zealand tour of 1985 only to be passed over at the very next opportunity. He duly gave the then selectors the benefit of his opinion; they showed their opinion of him by never again making him a first choice until now.

He takes it that the successor selectors, in belatedly restoring faith, are telling him to get on with it as he sees fit. Otherwise they might as well have stuck with Andrew. Barnes rationalises it thus: 'The new laws - and the type of rugby that can be played under them - have clearly been in my favour.

'Everyone in the northern hemisphere seems hugely critical but I saw games when Australia played New Zealand for the Bledisloe Cup that in terms of excitement and quality were as good as anything you could see. Yet we haven't come to terms with it, as the dearth of tries in the Five Nations and probably the quality of league rugby in England illustrate.

'The game demands off-the-cuff decision-making as opposed to the more traditional northern-hemisphere strengths of organisation and brute power. England have picked me to provide fluidity and variety. It's obvious, simply by selecting me, that they aren't going to ask me to sit back 20 yards and boot down the lines. Rob has his strengths but mine are in a different direction and it may be that those are the ones that have been lacking. I don't think England functioned particularly effectively in any of their four matches this season, not for any length of time.

'We've had to rely on power - which we've got away with because of our knowledge and confidence about winning. But it hasn't been the way it should have been when you look at the actual man-for-man talent in the team. And anyway it ended in defeat in Cardiff.'

This is careful analysis rather than hyper-criticism, though if he had not been chosen this time the same remarks would have been taken differently. Barnes has often let his tongue rather than his rugby do the talking and doubts about his temperament were always more pronounced than any about his ability.

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

Having been born in Grays, Essex, and moved to Newport at 11, Barnes was only ever Welsh in the way Rupert Moon and Tony Copsey are now. But even so he commenced his senior career with the Newport club as soon as he was 18 (memorably scoring a try 100 seconds into his debut) and reached the Wales squad while still a teenager.

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 quit Newport for Bristol - and promptly moved to outside-half, where he won three Blues for Oxford University. He also opted for the land of his father.

Ever since he switched to Bath in 1985, he has heard the 'Judas' accusation whenever he has returned to Bristol. He has borne it with fortitude, not least because he is secure in the knowledge that Bath were already the strongest club in England and became stronger, and because he established the symbiotic relationship with Rowell which sustained him through all too many dark hours.

Whenever things went wrong internationally - which was mostly - he always had Bath and Rowell to fall back on. 'It takes a special man to battle back from the disappointments Stuart has had,' Rowell said. 'As a team member, as an outside-half and as a captain, there has been none better at Bath - and we've had some very good ones.'

Mind you, the coach never agreed with Barnes's frustrated reaction to constant England exclusion: to declare himself unavailable. But that was the old Barnes. Rowell says he matured, particularly in three seasons of captaining Bath, and Barnes naturally agrees he has changed for the better.

'I'm a far more relaxed person,' he said. 'For some reason during the last year or so I've been far more at peace with myself. I make a conscious effort to keep myself calm, though I don't always succeed. I still have a short fuse but fewer things get to me. Referees still do.'

This was a reference to an infamous tirade against Colin Hawke, who refereed the England B team's second 'Test' in New Zealand last summer. Barnes, the tour captain, felt so compelled to speak out on behalf of his team that among other things he called Hawke 'bent'. In its curious, furious way it was vintage Barnes.

'With something as important and upsetting as that, I don't think you achieve a great deal by being politic. I've never been concerned if people haven't liked what I've said. There's life after rugby and you have to look at yourself in the mirror and believe you've acted with integrity.'

Which could be taken as a warning that he would speak equally straight to the current management if he saw fit. After all, he is scarcely a paragon of the modern fitness-fanatic virtue inculcated into England teams during the necessarily spartan years of Geoff Cooke's management.

'By the modern rugby player's standards, I still have a pretty relaxed lifestyle,' Barnes confessed. 'I eat out quite a lot and drink quite a lot of wine. I don't drink beer now bar the odd Saturday night and I try to train harder. When I joined Bath at the age of 22 I was 13 1/2 st; now I'm down more than a stone on that.'

Though he stands just 5ft 6in, this has not come easy. Barnes the bon viveur will always be more at home in, say, his favourite Beaujolais Restaurant in the refined surroundings of Bath's Queen Square than he is in a gym.

And as rugby union purportedly remains an amateur game, this is what places him among its most endearing individualists. There are few enough of them left.

(Photograph omitted)

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