Olly Barkley has not quite given up hope, although he expects to see an entire herd of pigs flying over Twickenham's new south stand before he is given the chance to spend more than a few minutes in the problem role most rugby followers with reliable eyesight believe he can perform at international level on a long-term basis.
For the second time in two years, the midfielder has been unceremoniously dumped from England's starting line-up on a southern hemisphere tour, despite a grievous lack of opportunity in his optimum position. Unsurprisingly, he is not best pleased.
“I'm not looking for favours and I don't expect things to land in my lap just like that, but the midfields that function the best are those that are given time to develop,” he said yesterday, fronting up with customary alacrity despite the depth of this latest selectorial wound. “Midfield relationships are about understanding, about cohesion. They need the chance to grow. I accept the coaches here have only a short time to mould a side capable of taking on the All Blacks, but if you're asking me whether I'm frustrated about being dropped to the bench, of course I am. It's not my style to throw the toys from the pram, but I'm not happy.”
In Australia in 2006, when Andy Robinson led the red rose army across the Equator, Barkley travelled as an inside centre but was picked at outside-half, then his more familiar position, for the opening Test in Sydney. A week later, when England played the Wallabies in Melbourne, he was out of the team. So much for the forward planning. Last weekend in Auckland, he started in the No 12 position against a lethal New Zealand midfield trio, played a half-decent 40 minutes or so and then found himself shifting to stand-off as a result of Charlie Hodgson's latest exercise in spontaneous combustion. England conceded no points during the remainder of the game, yet Barkley has bitten the dust once more.
Rob Andrew, the acting head coach, mentioned at the start of this trip that there were lingering concerns over Barkley's defensive work, and it is true that when it comes to heavy-duty tackling, his replacement this weekend - the Newcastle centre Jamie Noon - hits far harder. But Noon cannot play the territory game like Barkley, still less kick goals like him, and when it comes to the subtle arts of the game, there really is no comparison. Good judges are bemused by this latest interruption to Barkley's Test career, which has yielded him a mere dozen starts since he made his debut off the bench in the United States seven years ago.
It has been a strange season for the 26-year-old, to be sure. Despite being interviewed by police over an alleged assault last summer, he was picked for the 2007 World Cup and in the first pool game, he beat the Americans almost single-handedly. The good times did not last. He missed the following match against South Africa through injury, and despite recovering for the important contests with Samoa and Tonga, his apparent defensive frailty cost him his place once more.
When an assault charge was pressed after the tournament, he was dropped from the squad for the Six Nations Championship. Barkley continued to play brilliantly for Bath, however: a model of consistency, he guided the West Countrymen towards the Premiership play-offs by combining footballing creativity with reliable marksmanship. When the prosecution case against him collapsed, he immediately reappeared in the England reckoning.
Barkley knows what it is to operate under unusual pressures, and when asked yesterday whether the tour party's preparations for this weekend's second Test at Lancaster Park had been knocked out of kilter by the police investigation into allegations that four players had been involved in a serious, if unspecified, offence at the team hotel in Auckland last weekend, he was quick to stress the importance of maintaining a sense of focus.
“What choice to we have?” he asked. “We're professional rugby players and we have a Test match to win. I expect people to stay focused. You don't get selected for England if you're some sort of mental weed. It just doesn't happen. We have to keep our minds on the task we're here to perform.”
Mike Tindall, alongside whom Barkley will play at Gloucester next season after agreeing a move from Bath, missed the full-contact element of yesterday's training session after complaining of ankle problems. The World Cup-winning outside centre, who ended last weekend's match at Eden Park in the sin bin, has been struggling with the injury for some time. There was not, however, any suggestion that he would miss this weekend's game.Reuse content