Brian Ashton considers loyalty to be the first virtue of rugby selection, and a number of high-profile England players named in a 32-strong squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship – Phil Vickery and Mark Regan among the forwards, Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon among the backs – have reason to be grateful for the head coach's principled stand. Olly Barkley, on the other hand, is painfully aware that loyalty has its limits.
Ashton has ditched the Bath midfielder as a direct result of a pending court hearing into an accusation of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, which Barkley denies. Committal proceedings are scheduled for 11 February, the day after England's meeting with Italy in Rome, and the coach now takes the view that until the issue is finally laid to rest, the player is off limits. Barkley, one of the form players in England, has not even made the second-string Saxons squad.
It was another story last autumn when, despite being fully aware of a police investigation into the alleged incident at a summer reception marking the wedding of the former Bath and England full-back Matt Perry, Ashton included Barkley in his World Cup squad and started him in three of the four pool matches. At that point there was an expectation that the case would be dropped. Now Barkley has been charged and elected trial by jury, the England selectors see it very differently.
"This is not a punishment in any way, shape or form," Ashton said. "I simply want him to get the February hearing out of the way. It's a difficult situation, but I've made the decision and I'm comfortable with it." And how did Barkley take it? "I've spoken to Olly, but I'm not prepared to discuss the detail of a private conversation," he replied, tartly.
For his part, Rob Andrew rejected the notion that Ashton had been railroaded into dropping Barkley by the Rugby Football Union's moral majority. "It was Brian's decision, and his alone," said the director of elite rugby. "We want to support Olly, and do support him, but we had to take a number of factors into consideration."
Charlie Hodgson, who has not played for England since November 2006, is the obvious beneficiary of the Barkley saga, although his chances of making the match-day squad ahead of either Jonny Wilkinson or the dazzling 20-year-old Danny Cipriani are not especially brilliant. He has more of an opportunity than Josh Lewsey, however. The Wasps back has been squeezed out completely by Iain Balshaw, one of Ashton's favourite players despite an injury record from hell, and the brick outhouse of a new recruit from rugby league, Lesley Vainikolo – a Tongan who played 13-a-side rugby for New Zealand before switching codes and throwing in his lot with Gloucester.
A great believer that the best rugby league players are perfectly able to make successful transitions to union, despite the failed experiment with the discarded Andy Farrell, the coach was drooling over Vainikolo's talents yesterday. "What do I see in him? Well, he's powerful, quick and explosive; he has good footwork and a footballing brain; he's a try-scorer who poses threats all over the field; and he has yet to be caught out since changing codes. Oh, and one other thing: he has the X-factor." Would it not have been better to hang back a little and allow him to develop a kicking game? "Why," Ashton asked, "would I want a player of his dimensions to kick a rugby ball?"
Vainikolo and Cipriani make up 50 per cent of the uncapped brigade, the others being Richard Wigglesworth, the scrum-half from Sale, and Tom Croft, the talk-of-the-town flanker from Leicester. Croft nailed his place by giving Harlequins a thorough seeing-to at the Stoop on Sunday, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Ashton will give him a Test debut in the opening Six Nations match with Wales on 2 February. Croft faces stiff competition, though. Two Wasps back-rowers, Joe Worsley and James Haskell, are strong candidates for the blind-side role, while one of the youngster's club colleagues, Lewis Moody, offers another alternative.
When push came to shove, as it always does in the dark world of the front row, Ashton could not bring himself to dispense with Vickery's services, either as his senior tight-head prop or as his captain. There were options in both departments, Matt Stevens being the outstanding tight head in the country and Wilkinson being an experienced Test hand with captaincy credentials. Yet the coach spent less time cogitating over Vickery than he did weighing the pros and cons of Barkley.
"It was not a difficult choice," he said. "I stood by Phil in difficult times last year, just as he stood by me, and together we came through. We need some sort of continuity and stability, and as the World Cup proved, there is no substitute for experience at international level. Phil is ideal in offering those things and from what I've seen of him recently, he is still good enough to start a Six Nations game."
The same might have been said for Dan Hipkiss, who returned from the World Cup with the look of a long-term senior midfielder about him. There is no room at the inn for the Leicester player, however. Barkley is not the only one feeling hard done by.
Flag flyers: Chris Hewett's starting XV
Possible England team to face Wales on Sat 2 Feb:
15 M Tait
14 P Sackey
13 M Tindall
12 T Flood
11 D Strettle
10 J Wilkinson
9 A Gomarsall
1 A Sheridan
2 M Regan
3 P Vickery (capt)
4 S Shaw
5 B Kay
6 J Haskell
7 L Moody
8 N Easter
England squad for Six Nations
Backs: I Balshaw (Gloucester), D Cipriani (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale Sharks), T Flood (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins), C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), J Noon (Newcastle), P Richards (London Irish), P Sackey (Wasps), D Strettle (Harlequins), M Tait (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester).
Forwards: S Borthwick (Bath), T Croft (Leicester), G Chuter (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), M Regan (Bristol), S Shaw (Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), M Stevens (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), J Worsley (Wasps).Reuse content