Barkley injury gives Robinson a headache

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The Independent Online

England's midfield injury problems are such that any man standing has a better than even chance of featuring in the early stages of the Six Nations Championship when the annual jamboree hits the rugby capitals of Europe at the beginning of February.

Unfortunately for the national coach, Andy Robinson, an obvious candidate for a starting place against Wales in Cardiff, the Bath goal-kicker Olly Barkley, is struggling for fitness following delivery of a late sickness note before the Premiership game at Sale on Monday.

Barkley, who can perform at outside-half and inside-centre with equal facility and do a turn at full-back into the bargain, is suffering from back spasms, and is by no means certain to return to the Bath line-up when Saracens visit the Recreation Ground on New Year's Day. He hurt himself during kicking practice on Boxing Day, which rather serves him right for attempting to emulate his great rival, Jonny Wilkinson, in the keenness stakes.

"We gave him until the very last minute but, in the end, we had to take the decision to pull him out of the Sale game," said John Connolly, the head coach of Bath, who watched his side slip to a damaging nine-point defeat at Edgeley Park. "Losing him so late before the kick-off was a blow because he's an important figure in the team. We're hoping he will recover in time for the Saracens match, but we cannot bank on it."

Should Barkley miss out again, the England selectors will be less than jubilant. Two World Cup-winning centres, Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall, are currently hors de combat, and have next to no chance of facing the Welsh on 5 February. Another centre, Henry Paul of Gloucester, is effectively persona non grata, having been pointedly substituted by Robinson during the early stages of last month's Cook Cup defeat by the Wallabies at Twickenham.

Given the continuing uncertainty over Wilkinson's physical state - the man with the golden boot is still not starting games for Newcastle - the red rose hierarchy now badly need Barkley to underline his international credentials.

All things being equal, he will at least be on the bench against Wales. With Wilkinson on the way back and Charlie Hodgson shining for Sale, England may resume the New Zealand-style five-eighth experiment with which they initially dabbled in 2003. Three specialist centres - Stuart Abbott of Wasps, Jamie Noon of Newcastle and Ollie Smith of Leicester - are also in the frame.