Barkley at the heart of Bath's stuttering start

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The Independent Online

Worcester 22 Bath 26

It is not exactly ideal that an international outside-half should not know whether he is coming or going, since such players are put on this earth specifically to guide their colleagues through the dangerous dark alleys and perilous backstreets of the average top-flight rugby match and on to the sunlit uplands, where God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. At the moment, sadly, Olly Barkley would struggle to plot a route along the M4, such is the confusion in his mind.

Barkley wants to make his professional way as a specialist No 10. He made himself perfectly clear on this subject during his contractual negotiations with Bath last season, and his performances in the position for England during the Wilkinson-less Six Nations' Championship seemed to justify his stand. The vast majority of his work in the white shirt was mature and accomplished; some of it was inspired. Everyone saw him as the new big thing - or at least, the next best thing to Jonny-boy. Everyone, that is, except the coaches at the Recreation Ground.

John Connolly and his fellow Australian back-roomers omitted Barkley from the must-win games at the business end of the 2003-04 Premiership, and stuck to their guns during the first two matches of the current campaign. The London-born, Cornish-bred 22-year-old would not have played at Sixways on Saturday had Chris Malone - an Aussie, wouldn't you know - been fit to participate. The coaches are not persuaded by Barkley's distributive skills, and question his ability to think his way through a tight game, as virtually all games are these days. And the reservations of the judges are beginning to affect the judged.

During the first half of this fixture, Barkley was terrific. He tackled his poundage - had Wilkinson never existed, his rival from Bath might have been the one credited with re-inventing the defensive role of the outside-half - and he kicked with the kind of dead-eyed accuracy that earned him his international spurs in the first place. He was anything but terrific after the interval, though. His passing was about as crisp as an elderly lettuce, his kicking wavered and he suffered the torments of hell in the game management department.

As a result, Worcester found a way back into a contest they might have lost by 50 points had Bath maintained their momentum. A slightly fortunate try by Thomas Lombard, which resulted from a handily deflected kick from the base of a ruck by Neil Cole, was not down to Barkley, but the fact that the visitors spent far too much time dirtying their own doorstep had more than a little to do with the outside-half's failure to clear his lines. At the death, Bath needed two wonderful line-out steals from their burglar-in-chief, Steve Borthwick, to stay afloat.

A few weeks ago, there were all manner of rumours of a serious falling out between Barkley and Bath - that he had driven too hard a bargain on the salary front, that he fancied himself just a little too much, that he had infuriated the coaches with his lack of application. It appears no such problems existed. The fact of the matter is simple: Connolly and his colleagues see Barkley as a inside-centre rather than an outside-half, and will play him there sooner rather than later.

He can operate with some comfort in the 12 position, of course - the world and his wife witnessed as much during England's summer tour of New Zealand and Australia, when Barkley performed with considerable expertise and courage. But if Bath move him to centre, the risks will be considerable. Will Barkley stay? Will Malone really cut it as a Premiership play-maker, given a lack of pace that would leave him vulnerable to Paula Radcliffe in a sprint finish? And what of the high-quality centres already in place? One of Mike Tindall and Robbie Fleck would have to go, and the over-manning problem would only worsen with the arrival of Frikkie Welsh, who is heading for the West Country from Pretoria.

Tindall, heavily criticised for his foibles and fragilities against Newcastle the previous week, played pretty well against a Worcester midfield devoid of subtlety. His early cover tackle on Lombard was excellent, his thumping turn-over assault on Tommy Hayes even better. He did manage to find his way to the sin-bin - Dave Pearson, the referee, took a very dim view of his ball-clearing antics at a defensive ruck - and this gave the local rent-a-gobs the excuse they needed to chide him over his much-chronicled relationship with the Princess Royal's daughter. Tindall survived the ribbing with something to spare.

As he walked off, he grinned at the crowd as if to say: "See you at the next garden party? I don't think so, you proles." After Brendon Daniel's interception try in the opening seconds Tindall put himself on the end of an exquisite grubber-kick from Barkley to open up a 17-3 lead. Even though Bath's indiscipline on the floor allowed Hayes to kick Worcester to within eight points by the break, there was nothing to suggest a meaningful home revival until Lombard's intervention. Suddenly, Worcester's well-balanced second row pairing of Tim Collier and Craig Gillies were the equal of Borthwick and Danny Grewcock, loading the bullets for Hayes and Ben Hinshelwood to fire from their positions in a realigned midfield.

Thanks largely to Borthwick's line-out brilliance, Worcester were denied a red-letter victory. The Premiership newcomers have, however, made considerable progress in settling on their optimum combination. The same cannot be said for last season's runners-up. Bath face Gloucester, Leicester and Wasps in rapid succession after next weekend's trip to Harlequins. Any positional uncertainty against that little trio will cost them a packet.

Worcester: Try Lombard; Conversion Hayes; Penalties Hayes 5. Bath: Tries Daniel, Tindall; Conversions Barkley 2; Penalties Barkley 3; Drop goal Barkley.

Worcester: T Delport; D O'Leary, T Hayes, G Trueman (B Hinshelwood, 24), T Lombard; J Brown (D Roke, 57), N Cole (C Stuart-Smith, 74); A Windo, B Daly (A van Niekerk, 68), L Fortey (S Sparks, 64), T Collier, C Gillies, L Greeff, B Macleod-Henderson (D Hickey, 55), P Sanderson (capt).

Bath: J Maddock; B Daniel, R Fleck, M Tindall (S Davey, 65), A Crockett; O Barkley, M Wood; D Barnes (M Stevens, 32), J Humphreys (capt, L Mears 48), D Bell (Barnes, 68), S Borthwick, D Grewcock, A Beattie, I Fea'unati, M Lipman.

Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).

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