On his arrival here yesterday, Clive Woodward stooped down, grasped a few blades of grass from the sacred green turf and tossed them to the howling wind. It confirmed what the England coach would have privately suspected: namely that his fourth-choice fly-half and goal-kicker, Olly Barkley, should be prepared for an uncomfortable examination of his prowess, buffeted not just by the visitors but also by the elements.
Ultimately, it transpired, it was the former which were far the greater tormentors of Woodward's men who, though they atoned for the events of a fortnight ago, with the exemplary Ben Cohen scoring two tries and thoroughly vindicating his participation, only performed with the panache of world champions sporadically. England's men had attempted to explain away defeat by the Irish as simply a blemish on the face of English rugby, when in fact, the evidence suggests that it is more of an oozing sore requiring considerable antiseptic treatment. Against Ireland, it was plausible to attribute inaccurate line-outs throws from the obliging scapegoat Steve Thompson for England's malaise. Here, with 19 throws won, and one lost, that factor could not be used in mitigation.
Such reservations, however, should not detract from a decidedly promising display by Barkley, who had achieved notoriety with his implication in England becoming acknowledged in midweek as the Stan Flashman XV, but who exhibited resourcefulness and courage throughout. His contribution was complemented by near-impeccable kicking, which yielded him 16 points on his first start for his country with six successful kicks from seven attempts, his only failure following replacement Joe Worsley's try when England already had the match safe. That apart, he could look Woodward in the eye last night.
"Thank you, God," he may have well been raging at the skies like a manic Basil Fawlty, confronted with a car that won't start, as he emerged at the start from the dressing room. The powerful gusts and the sheer scale of the challenge against Steve Hansen's team, which England knew from their experiences against them in the World Cup back in November could produce some awesome football when the mood took them, was an oppressive environment for any performer on his first Test start.
Barkley, however, was dismissive of such considerations, certainly in the first half. But maybe you'd expect that from a young man who spurned overtures from the 11-man football code as a teenager, and from Arsenal, no less. The young man, rather unkindly alluded to as a Jonny Wilkinson clone, principally on the basis that he cradles his hands in similar fashion before every kick, could have been expected to dispatch his first dead-ball kick anywhere but between the posts, and receive a sympathetic groan from the England faithful when he had the chance to supplement Ben Cohen's opening try, a score borne of sheer cussedness. Yet, facing up to the conversion far out on the left, he demonstrated a remarkable composure, drilling the ball through accurately to secure the points as adeptly as well, a Thierry Henry invited to take a free-kick.
Twickenham bellowed its approval, not just because of that successful strike, but at the expectancy that a pivotal role in England's midfield could be entrusted to a man in the mould of Wilkinson. Clean-cut and earnest, the pair do share certain qualities, although Barkley does not possess Wilko's physique, or yet, his presence.
Woodward had required only a few seconds deliberation before deciding to play the Barkley card, thus eschewing the experience of Barkley's Bath team-mate Mike Catt for the top-class kicking credentials of the 22-year-old left-footer (being thus blessed, he complements those around him), the Zurich Premiership's top points scorer this season, with 216.
As a teenager, the Cornishman had been on trial with Plymouth Argyle when an Arsenal scout was struck by his potential. He responded to a Highbury invitation by going out to play basketball with his friends instead. Apparently, a particularly cunning PE teacher at his Wadebridge school insisted Barkley try rugby if he wanted to continue playing football. Soon after, Barkley picked up a rugby ball and a future England career was born.
Here, there were some splendid touches, some pleasingly subtle, particularly in the first half and his passing was generally clean. Especially satisfying was the relationship he established with Matt Dawson, with whom he had never played before. One ball received from the Northampton man was switched inside immediately by Barkley to Cohen, a move which had the winger surging through the visitors' lines, only to be stopped by full-back Gareth Thomas. It was followed by a delightful kick forward from Barkley who followed it in, though, as he did so, the player had the initiative to instruct Cohen, also in pursuit, to charge down the recipient Gareth Thomas. The Northampton man obliged and thrust his huge frame in front of the full-back, but though his fingers won the ball, Dawson, following up, was unable to profit.
The championship remains a live prospect, though France may have their own observations about that next Saturday on what is likely to be anything but a romantic interlude in Paris. But will it be heartbreak for yesterday's under-under-under-study, or will Woodward turn again to Paul Grayson, injured yesterday? That will be the intriguing question.
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