Olly Barkley, one of the form players in Premiership rugby since last year's World Cup and an individual who might conceivably have saved Brian Ashton's skin as England coach had he featured in the Six Nations Championship, was yesterday cleared of an assault charge when prosecutors at Aylesbury Crown Court dropped proceedings due to lack of evidence. The Bath goal-kicker, omitted from the red rose squad pending the outcome of the case, is now a strong candidate to travel to New Zealand for the two-Test series with the All Blacks in June.
The accusation, arising from an alleged incident at the wedding party of Barkley's club colleague Matt Perry, had been "hanging over him for nine months," to use the words of Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, who issued a statement congratulating the player.
"We are all delighted for him," Andrew continued. "It must have been a very anxious time. However, he has focused on his club rugby and been a driving force behind Bath's success this season. He will of course be under consideration for the New Zealand tour squad."
Barkley, who has agreed a move to Gloucester for next term, played at the World Cup – and played well, particularly in single-handedly dragging England through their opening pool fixture against the United States – even though the Twickenham hierarchy knew he was the subject of police inquiries. Strangely, they then dumped him from their Six Nations party. Had he been on the field in the games against Wales and Scotland, his old mentor Ashton might still be in a job.
"I am really pleased that I am now able to put this behind me," said the 26-year-old midfielder, whose game management skills have been instrumental in cementing Bath's position in the top four of the Premiership and guiding them to the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup. "I refused to allow it to affect me on the pitch, and I hope my performances have demonstrated that. Now, I am happy to move on from it and do what I can to bring home some silverware."
If Barkley is now a live candidate for the business in New Zealand, another of England's midfielders at the World Cup, the rather more senior Mike Catt, spent yesterday pouring bucketfuls of cold water on rumours that he would also make the trip as the national team's new attack coach. Asked how many times he had been telephoned by Martin Johnson, the recently appointed team manager, in respect of the vacancy, he replied: "Hand on heart, he hasn't phoned me at all. We haven't spoken about it and, anyway, I have a year left on my contract at London Irish."
Of more concern to Catt was his state of fitness ahead of this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham, in which the Exiles – complete strangers to this sort of occasion – take on Toulouse, out there ahead of the field as the only three-times champions of Europe. The 36-year-old, anglicised South African is struggling to overcome a calf problem and will not make a decision on participating until tomorrow.
The Leicester board will meet at Welford Road today amid continuing whispers, many of them emanating from inside the club, that the Argentine head coach, Marcelo Loffreda, might be sacked before the end of the campaign. The Tigers failed to find a way into the Heineken Cup knockout stages, are struggling to make the Premiership play-offs and capitulated to the Ospreys in the final of the EDF Energy Cup earlier this month.