Olly Barkley apologised for being late but he had a great alibi. Wondering around the centre of Bath he got drawn into a police identity parade. "I got 10 quid for 10 minutes' work,'' he said. "That's not bad.'' The prime suspect must have been a fit looking teenager complete with T-shirt and baseball cap.
"Actually, being punctual,'' Barkley added, "has never been one of my strengths." When he was called into the senior England squad several months ago he did not make a good impression. The plan was to catch a train from Wadebridge in Cornwall to the Recreation Ground at Bath where he would join some of his England club-mates for a mini-bus journey to the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot, Clive Woodward's headquarters. "Unfortunately I missed the train. A friend drove me to Bath, but we were too late for the bus. We had no map and didn't know where we were going.'' On the bus Andy Long, the Bath forward, helped Barkley navigate via a mobile phone. "I was taking directions for six hours and it was pretty stressful,'' Barkley said. "When I finally got to the hotel I felt really embarrassed although Clive was pretty good about it.''
When you have spent a lot of summers surfing and living on beaches, catching a train to get to a five-star hotel in Surrey represents a new kind of challenge. In any case Barkley is a wanted man. Before he was legally eligible to buy his first pint, Bath wanted him. And England – on the recent tour to North America he won his first cap. He has yet to make his league debut for Bath although he is in the running to do so when the season starts next weekend.
Woodward's party to Canada and the United States was deprived of a host of senior players who were on Lions duty in Australia. "Clive told me back in October that I was going on the tour but I thought it was with an England Development squad, a mixture of Under-21s and A-team players. I didn't realise the full significance of it. No matter how much I wanted it, I never thought I'd do it.''
Although Barkley signed for Bath 14 months ago on a three-year contract, he did so on condition that he was allowed to spend a season overseas. He stayed with his girlfriend Beki in Christchurch, New Zealand and played for the local Marist Club. Bath helped with the travelling arrangements.
''At the time I wasn't fully convinced I wanted to play professional rugby. In New Zealand the game was very physical although there wasn't a great deal of continuity. In terms of commitment it was second to none and I loved it. What it made me realise was how much I missed the game at home.'' While he was in New Zealand he received confirmation, on the internet, of his place on the England tour.
Against British Columbia he played at stand-off, moving to scrum-half in the second half. Against USA A he played inside centre and for the Test match against the Eagles, who were captained by the Bath No 8 Dan Lyle, he came on for his senior cap, five months short of his 20th birthday. "I'd been on the bench and at half-time while I was listening to the team talk Joe Lydon gave me the thumbs-up sign. It was a pretty unique feeling. Inside I was smiling.''
Ten minutes into the second half of a match England won comfortably, Barkley came on at centre for Jamie Noon and subsequently switched to stand-off for the injured David Walder. "It didn't quite turn out as I would have liked. I made two tackles but took two wrong options. I also fluffed the biggest kick of my life. They gave me a conversion which dribbled along the ground. Paul Grayson, the kicking coach, said it could cost him his job. The whole thing was amazing and it still hasn't really sunk in. There's so much I want to do and so much to learn. What was impressive about playing with senior professionals is not so much what they did on the pitch as their approach to problems off it. I have also been very lucky in working with fantastic coaches like Brian Ashton and Ellery Hanley. You need the right people around you. The main thing is I've got my cap.'' It's hanging from a lamp on the mantelpiece of a flat he shares in Bath.
Barkley was born in Shepherd's Bush, London, and moved to Cornwall when he was six. His father John was a one-time open-side flanker with Harlequins. At Wadebridge Comprehensive School Olly played his first game of rugby at the age of 12. '"I loved basketball and football. Plymouth Argyle were supposed to be interested in me. Rugby didn't appeal and whenever I played it I was always a year ahead of my age group. I started to play for the Wadebridge Camels but I can't nail down exactly when it was that rugby became important to me.''
Probably when he met Alan Martinovic, the coach at Colston's College in Bristol, a feeding ground for Bath. "Getting out of Cornwall meant I could concentrate on my education and not be distracted,'' Barkley said. "Boarding was one of the best things I've ever done. You develop social skills and I had to learn to live with people I didn't get on with. You have to meet them half way.''
He spent three years at Colston's, getting and A and two Cs in Sports Studies, English Literature and Business Studies. It kept him from Constantine Bay and gave Martinovic time to work on Barkley's rugby skills. According to Jon Callard, the Bath coach, they are considerable. "We first noticed him when he was 16 and playing scrum-half at Colston's,'' Callard said. "Then he went to outside-half, although he's equally comfortable at No 10 or in the centre. It depends on the people who play with him. It's not a big issue. He's got a marvellous understanding of the game and he always wants to get better, which is fantastic. He's a great kicker of the ball and he makes time for himself and others which is something you can't coach. That's a gift.''
After returning from America, Barkley played stand-off in two warm up games for his club earlier this month, a 28-20 win over Munster at Thomond Park and a 44-31 victory over Wasps. "He surpassed all expectations,'' Callard said. "He looked composed and never seems to get flustered. I'm not saying he won't be, but he exudes a calmness. You've either got that or you haven't.''
When Barkley played for England Under-16 against Wales at Twickenham he didn't have it. "I wasn't ready for it,'' he said. "I had no control over my anxiety, like worryingly so. I'd played for my county but this was before 15,000 people on a ground 60 times as big as anything I've ever played on. I struggled to open the door to the changing room, my hands were shaking so much. I was more nervous then than running on to win my first cap in America.''
Barkley still has his surfboard and his friends in Cornwall. "It's a great place to chill out and get away from it all. They take the piss out of me and that helps to keep my feet on the ground.'' Somebody down there might also talk to him about Richard Sharp, the Cornishman who became a quintessential England fly-half. Had Olly heard of Sharp? "Is he a reporter?''
If all goes to plan, Barkley, who could wear number nine, 10, or 11 at an identity parade, will be too familiar to earn a tenner as a stand-in at a police station.Reuse content