Barkley refuses to play the waiting game

Bath's brightest young thing has won one battle, to start at No 10 for his club, and now moves on to another - ousting Jonny Wilkinson.
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This week's quiz is a straightforward one, carrying the lip-smacking prize of an evening with Martin Johnson in a dark alley of his choosing. To win, simply identify the speaker: "I know there is more to life than rugby but it's the job I do, and when things go wrong the sport can make me very unhappy. I'd like to be less intense about it all, but that is not a luxury available to me."

This week's quiz is a straightforward one, carrying the lip-smacking prize of an evening with Martin Johnson in a dark alley of his choosing. To win, simply identify the speaker: "I know there is more to life than rugby but it's the job I do, and when things go wrong the sport can make me very unhappy. I'd like to be less intense about it all, but that is not a luxury available to me."

Still guessing? This should help. "There are times when I can't face going out after a match. I'm so exhausted, I'm asleep by 9.30." In need of a final clue? "I enjoy my own company. I love going to the coast in the middle of winter - three miles of beach, and not a soul in sight."

Those of you who instantly wrote the words "Jonny" and "Wilkinson" on your entry forms are out of the running. These are the thoughts of another young English outside-half with a penchant for kicking killer goals and an ambitious streak wider than an All Black game plan. His name? Olly Barkley. His problem? The aforementioned Mr Wilkinson.

Until very recently, Barkley had problems of a different nature; problems that Wilkinson, for one, has never encountered. His issue was one of selection - or rather, non-selection. Omitted from the Bath starting line-up towards the end of last season, despite two wonderfully resourceful in-at-the-deep-end performances for England in the Six Nations Championship, he found himself marginalised once again at the start of the current campaign. His treatment bewildered the Recreation Ground's rank-and-file support and darkened the mood of Jack Rowell, the club's director of rugby, who rightly considered the 22-year-old to be one of Bath's principal long-term assets.

It also baffled Barkley, at least for a while. "I'm not one to bitch about why so-and-so is playing instead of me; coaches pick teams, and players have to live with their decisions. But there were some communication difficulties, definitely. I was never told in so many words why I wasn't being picked, and I'm not overly sure that the coaches were completely certain in their own minds about the outside-half position. I'd had a poor game against Montferrand in the European Challenge Cup, but felt I could get over it. They felt differently; they told me I was tired and dropped me. I was frustrated, yes, but life wouldn't be life without the shitty times, would it?

"Maybe I should have asked John Connolly [the Australian sporting sage appointed head coach at the Rec in the summer of 2003] what lay behind his thinking. I didn't do that and I regret it, because communication works both ways. But to my mind, successful rugby teams are based on strong relationships within the side, which in turn are founded on familiarity and trust. Outside-half is a key role in all this, and for the sake of the team, whoever plays 10 should stay at 10."

Barkley is playing 10 at the moment, and doing it so well that he is surely in for the long haul. He dealt comfortably with the Gloucester hordes in the big West Country derby a fortnight ago, and prospered further during Bath's epic contest with Leicester at Welford Road last Saturday. His marksmanship is of a very high quality indeed, his defence has improved out of all recognition and his sense of personal responsibility is positively Wilkinsonesque. He has a trick or two to learn in the game-management department, but an increased willingness to attack with ball in hand gives Bath more tactical flexibility than they offered last season.

In short, he has the makings of an all-purpose international stand-off. Unfortunately for him - not to mention Charlie Hodgson of Sale - Wilkinson had been there and done it, and is now back for more. As England captain, no less. Andy Robinson's decision to bestow upon the reluctant glamour-puss of Red Rose rugby the mantle of leader effectively slams the door shut. Assuming Wilkinson stays fit, the likes of Barkley and Hodgson will remain in Neil Kinnock territory: stranded on the doorstep of No 10 without a key to get in.

"Jonny is a massive figure in world rugby, and now he's captain - the right decision, I'm sure - it makes my job quite hard," Barkley admitted, with more than a hint of understatement. "I'd be surprised if Charlie didn't feel the same way. But it's not a case of me thinking 'Jonny's playing 10, so I'll play somewhere else'. I won't change in terms of my positional preference. This has to be about being the best I can be. If I can achieve that, then it's possible I can confuse the thinking when it comes to England selection.

"Actually, I can't say I know Jonny particularly well. He was injured when I made my Six Nations appearances, and he didn't tour New Zealand and Australia last summer. I know this much, though: he finds it difficult to go anywhere without 50 people suddenly materialising around him. During England training this week, he had to leave by the back door - and that was on the campus at Loughborough University! It's tough on him, I think. I see myself as a private person, just as he does, but at least I get to enjoy myself when I go out."

If there is a good deal of the Wilkinson in Barkley, the younger man is keen to emphasise their differences. "I have problems with punctuality, for a start," he pointed out, referring to his rival's obsessive time-keeping regime, under which all meetings and training sessions start five minutes early. But the two outside-halves certainly share a passion for the physical side of the game, a passion that has already left the more experienced man at the mercy of the surgeon's scalpel. Barkley is nowhere near the big-hit merchant Wilkinson was this time last year, but he is perfectly willing to do his bit.

Last week's Premiership draw at Leicester, a veritable brute of a contest that might usefully have been relocated from Welford Road to the neighbouring general hospital, was a case in point. It was precisely the kind of match designed to reduce a mere stand-off, rugby's equivalent of the seven-stone weakling, to his component parts. In the event, Barkley mixed it with the best of them, leading the line with fearless intent and making more than his fair share of important tackles. To put it more succinctly, he was an absolute star.

"I've been involved in tougher games," he said with a dismissive shrug. "I remember playing Gloucester at Kingsholm last season, when it was peeing down with rain and we had people scrambling around in totally unfamiliar positions, and others carrying on to the bitter end with their hamstrings in pieces. For the whole of the last 10 minutes, Gloucester moved the ball from one side of the pitch to the other, looking for a hole. That was pretty extreme. I suppose last weekend's game was as close to Test-match intensity you're likely to find in the Premiership, but I didn't think it was too savage. My mum phoned me afterwards and said 'I watched it on the television and I couldn't believe how hard the players were going in'. But hey, that's my mum for you.

"The point about that Bath performance was that we went there expecting to win, and left there disappointed at the draw. It brings me back to that whole thing about relationships within the team. If you don't have complete faith and confidence in each other, you will never survive long periods on the back foot and you'll never win the tight games. Last season, we struggled to field the same back-line twice in a row. This year, we're beginning to develop some continuity and it shows. To keep that going, it's important to allow individual players a bad game or two."

Time will tell whether Connolly and his fellow Australians among the back-room staff are now prepared to cut Barkley some slack, rather than cut his throat on the basis of one rough afternoon. "I love playing for this club," the youngster said. If Bath, traditionally prickly on the man-management front, show him a little love in return, he will be of incalculable benefit to them.