Barkley returns to form at right time

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The Independent Online

Olly Barkley, a live contender for the England outside-half position when the world champions open their two-Test rubber against the All Blacks in Dunedin next month, seems certain to return to Bath's squad for this weekend's Premiership final with Wasps at Twickenham. He is not, however, a likely starter. Chris Malone, preferred to Barkley for a number of big games over the last month, is expected to operate at No 10 - a selection that would leave his more celebrated colleague manacled to the replacements' bench.

Olly Barkley, a live contender for the England outside-half position when the world champions open their two-Test rubber against the All Blacks in Dunedin next month, seems certain to return to Bath's squad for this weekend's Premiership final with Wasps at Twickenham. He is not, however, a likely starter. Chris Malone, preferred to Barkley for a number of big games over the last month, is expected to operate at No 10 - a selection that would leave his more celebrated colleague manacled to the replacements' bench.

Barkley was an unqualified success when he heeded England's call for the Six Nations' Championship matches with Wales and France in March - games that seemed to set a crown on his outstanding season at the Recreation Ground. But the 22-year-old goal-kicker suffered a sharp dip in form on his return to club rugby, was demoted to the bench for the Premiership fixture with Harlequins earlier this month and was dropped altogether for the important meeting with Gloucester a week later.

John Connolly, the head coach at Bath, justified this decision by pointing to Barkley's acute fatigue at the fag-end of a campaign in which he had played high-level rugby every week since last August. He was also "too distracted" to give Bath the control they required, according to insiders at the club. However, Barkley trained well yesterday - well enough, apparently, to earn him a recall as the West Countrymen, champions on a roll-over basis during the closing years of the amateur era, seek a first national title since 1996.

Mike Catt, bound for London Irish next season after failing to agree satisfactory terms at the Rec, will land himself a bench place if he recovers from hamstring problems over the next 48 hours. Mike Tindall, another hamstrung midfielder, has already proved his fitness and definitely plays. Simon Danielli's commitments with Scotland will probably mean a starting place on the wing for the 22-year-old local product Alex Crockett; indeed, Bath could go in with two centres on the wings if Andrew Higgins, the former Bristol player, gets the nod.

England, meanwhile, have named one of the least experienced teams in living memory for the non-cap match with the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday. Hugh Vyvyan of Newcastle will captain a side featuring only one of the players selected for the senior tour of New Zealand and Australia - Mark Regan, the Leeds hooker. Michael Worsley, the Harlequins prop, may join Regan Down Under if Clive Woodward identifies him as the man to replace the injured David Flatman of Bath, but as things stand, the Baa-Baas will find themselves confronting one élite international and 14 red-rose underlings.

As expected, Gloucester provide the forward firepower in the contrasting shapes of two elongated locks, Mark Cornwell and Alex Brown, and the diminutive back-row forager Andy Hazell. Nick Walshe, not required by Sale for Saturday's wildcard final with Leicester because he has thrown in his lot with Bath for next season, plays at scrum-half in the absence of the injury-prone Clive Stuart-Smith, a youngster highly rated by those rare individuals who have actually seen him play.

Meanwhile, the Irish Rugby Football Union are attempting to defuse an increasingly bitter dispute with their international players over pay and conditions. The Test squad are insisting on an enhanced agreement being put in place before they leave for their summer tour of South Africa.

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