Olly Barkley, the injured Bath midfielder, is expected to be fit to play for England against the French in Paris a week on Sunday - a match the world champions must win to maintain a realistic hope of securing a first Six Nations title in three years. Whether he is picked or not is a different matter entirely, given his lengthy spell of enforced inactivity. There again, England would do well at least to examine the option in training next week, on the basis that their attacking game is looking increasingly barren without him.
Barkley has not played since dislocating his right thumb during his club's heavy defeat by Leinster in the final round of Heineken Cup pool matches in mid-January. He has trained hard, but has done no work with the ball. The fact that the same might be said of most of those currently inhabiting the England back division merely emphasises his importance to the red rose squad.
Andy Robinson, the national coach, had chosen the 24-year-old goal-kicker at inside centre for the opening Six Nations game with Wales, but was forced to revert to the unsatisfactory Mike Tindall-Jamie Noon combination when Barkley suffered his painful digital disintegration. The two have kept in close touch, however, and Robinson must be heartened to learn that Barkley will resume catching and passing over the next couple of days.
It would be a gamble of Cheltenham Gold Cup proportions to give him a starting role in Paris, although there are recent precedents. France have rushed Damien Traille, their inside centre, back from injury, while Wales threw Gavin Henson in at the bottomless end against Ireland last weekend, a few days after the completion of a long suspension. However, Henson's grisly experience at Lansdowne Road - one that apparently left him feeling "suicidal" - was probably enough to dissuade Robinson from taking too much by way of a liberty.
Sadly for Bath, who take on Llanelli Scarlets in the second of this weekend's Powergen Cup semi-finals at the Millennium Stadium, there will be no sign of Barkley's name on the team sheet. Both Michael Stephenson and David Bory are also hors de combat. Matt Perry, the former England full-back, is a likely starter, though, and the West Countrymen hope the rest of their England squad contingent - Danny Grewcock, Steve Borthwick, Lee Mears and Matt Stevens - will be present and correct up front.
The Scarlets seemed destined to lose the services of their outstanding scrum-half Dwayne Peel for the match, thanks to the Welsh Rugby Union's farcical insistence that he rest ahead of the Wales-Italy international on Saturday week. "That's a disappointment for me," said Brian Ashton, the Bath coach, yesterday. "When you play sides like Llanelli you want all the big names playing. You don't want world-class players sitting on the touchline watching the game. It seems a bit silly in a semi-final."
France have recalled Dimitri Szarzewski, the Stade Français hooker, to their squad for the meeting with England in 10 days' time. More pointedly, the coach Bernard Laporte delivered a few well-chosen words in response to the criticism aimed at his side following the first three games of the competition. "Some people say we don't have a game plan, but when I look at our statistics I see we have scored 13 tries in three games, which is more than in the whole Championship last season," Laporte remarked. "Not bad for a team without strategy."