Barkley steps into England problem area

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The Independent Online

Fourteen changes from the side who started the World Cup final against the Springboks in Paris last October; only four survivors from the team who took the field at Twickenham for the concluding Six Nations Championship match with Ireland ... things certainly move fast on the England front these days.

Yet only one selection for this weekend's opening Test with the All Blacks really catches the eye amid the carnage: the decision to play the Gloucester-bound Olly Barkley ahead of the Leicester-bound Toby Flood at inside centre, and lumber him with the goal-kicking for good measure.

Flood was one of half a dozen ever-presents in the Six Nations, having exposed the folly of Brian Ashton's decision to omit him from the World Cup party by making some striking contributions on being belatedly summoned to the global tournament as a replacement for the stricken Jamie Noon. The coach subsequently admitted his error – "I got that wrong, didn't I?" – and came to regard the 22-year-old midfielder as an automatic choice.

How the worm has turned. Both Ashton and Flood are now out on their ears, although the latter can at least say he still has a job.

By contrast, Barkley has successfully redeemed a season that can be described as the most difficult of his career. He performed brilliantly at outside-half in the World Cup victory over the United States but then faded from view after a painful night against the Tongans. An allegation of assault was hanging over him at this point and, when the case collapsed, he was brought back into the fold in recognition of his work at Bath.

"Last year's World Cup was one to remember and one to forget, in a funny kind of way, and since then, a lot has happened to me on and off the pitch," he said yesterday. "Missing the Six Nations was hard. I didn't agree with the decision to leave me out, but Brian had his reasons and I'm not the sort to rue what could have been. Anyway, I'd have to be pretty low on self-esteem if I thought I wouldn't get another cap in the seven or eight years I have left. I'm back now and I feel I deserve to be here. I'd have been disappointed if I hadn't been named in the starting line-up."

The significance of his victory over Flood is considerable, for the No 12 position has been causing the national selectors no end of grief for some years. To judge by Barkley's recent level of prowess, achieved in the face of pressing personal issues, a solution may be close at hand.

A less confident individual might have preferred to be spared the marksmanship duties, but Barkley has been knocking them over for so many months now he is happy to multi-task. This comes as a relief to Rob Andrew, the acting team manager-cum-coach, who wants Charlie Hodgson to concentrate on one job at a time. Hodgson is no mug as a kicker, as his Premiership record indicates, but bisecting the sticks at Edgeley Park in Stockport is rather different to doing it at Eden Park in Auckland.

There is one new cap in Andrew's side, the London Irish wing Topsy Ojo, who joins Mike Brown and David Strettle in an inexperienced back-three unit. With Brown filling the problem position at No 15 and Luke Narraway of Gloucester stepping in at No 8, the spine of the team is not exactly overflowing with know-how, either.

New Zealand have made only one enforced change to the side that stared down Ireland last weekend. Canterbury's Greg Somerville replaces John Afoa of Auckland. Somerville is less bulky than Afoa, but he is more experienced and will ask big questions of England's champion scrummager Andrew Sheridan.

"When Sheridan plays well, England plays well," said Steve Hansen, the All Blacks' forwards coach. "Greg is a pretty grizzly sort, but the key thing will be to attack Sheridan and dominate him by scrumming as an eight." It will be easier said than done. The lines of battle have been drawn, though. We can expect a proper scrap.

England: M Brown (Harlequins); T Ojo (London Irish), M Tindall (Gloucester), O Barkley (Bath), D Strettle (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), R Wigglesworth (Sale); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), T Palmer (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath, captain), J Haskell (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), L Narraway (Gloucester). Replacements: D Paice (London Irish), T Payne (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), J Noon (Newcastle), M Tait (Newcastle).

New Zealand: M Muliaina (Chiefs); A Tuitavake (Blues), C Smith (Hurricanes), M Nonu (Hurricanes), S Sivivatu (Chiefs); D Carter (Crusaders), A Ellis (Crusaders); N Tialata (Hurricanes), A Hore (Hurricanes), G Somerville (Crusaders), B Thorn (Crusaders), A Williams (Crusaders), R So'oialo (Hurricanes), R McCaw (Crusaders, captain), J Kaino (Blues). Replacements: K Mealamu (Blues), J Schwalger (Hurricanes), A Boric (Blues), S Lauaki (Chiefs), J Cowan (Highlanders), S Donald (Chiefs), L MacDonald (Crusaders).

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