Barkley still banking on a recall to the colours

One of England's most talented backs must recover from two low blows in order to stake his claim to the keenly contested national No 12 shirt
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The Independent Online

Olly Barkley received a kick in the unmentionables last September, an excruciating if wholly accidental episode that rather cramped his style ahead of the autumn internationals. "It's difficult to hang on to your dignity when you're waddling around like Donald Duck," he points out. Six weeks or so ago, he took a second blow in the same place - figuratively as opposed to literally on this occasion, but none the less painful for that. Indeed, Barkley is not entirely sure which of these two eye-watering incidents caused him most grief.

Bath's most gifted midfield back, a player squarely in the tradition of Barnes and Palmer and Catt, is not in the current England mix, having failed to make the cut for Brian Ashton's first senior squad last month. As we speak, he cannot get into the second-string Saxons line-up, which is quite a concern for him in World Cup year. On the basis the Saxons cannot conceivably have knocked him back because he looks like a Celt, it must be a case of someone important deciding he is not up to scratch. This is baffling, to say the very least.

From the moment Will Greenwood, that unconventional but supremely intelligent inside centre, disappeared off the England radar in late 2004, the world champions have been searching high and low for an instinctive playmaker with the full range of skills to assume responsibility for the No 12 position - a role deemed so crucial that the likes of Luke McAlister, Stephen Larkham and Yannick Jauzion get to perform it. Clive Woodward once tried Charlie Hodgson there, without noticeable success; Andy Robinson gave Henry Paul, Mike Tindall, Mike Catt and Jamie Noon a go. These were popularly deemed too flakey, too ponderous, too old and too one-dimensional, in that order.

The one fixed point has been the notion that, given the grace of God and a following wind, Barkley might provide an answer - possibly the answer. Except he hasn't. Why? Because he has never been given the chance. Instead, he has been messed around. The England coaches had a chance to give him a run at 12 in Australia last summer, but decided against it for reasons still submerged in the dark depths of the unfathomable. He was picked at outside-half for the first Test, when the tourists fielded a running team on a swamp in Sydney, and then dropped for the second, when a kicking side was chosen for an indoor match in Melbourne. Sometimes, you just have to wonder.

Just as the 25-year-old Barkley must be wondering as he watches Andy Farrell, the clear first choice of Ashton and his circle, prepare for next Saturday's interesting little Six Nations meeting with Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll in Dublin - a confrontation that will tell us a good deal about the thirtysomething cross-coder's ability to live with the pace generated by a really serious pair of centres.

It has been a rough few months for the Bath man, and it will be rougher still if he fails to catch Ashton's eye in time for the tour of South Africa in late May and early June. Barkley can already consider himself the lost man of English rugby. Should England fly south to Johannesburg without him, there is very little likelihood of his being rediscovered before the global gathering in France in September.

"I hate looking back," he says. "What's the point? South Africa is my target, so it's a matter of getting my head down and playing sufficiently well in the Premiership to merit another look. Have I heard from Brian? Not really. He has a lot on his mind just at the moment, I think it's fair to say. But I did send him an email the other day, mentioning one or two things about my game, and he replied very quickly. I was grateful for that. After the run I've had, any signs of interest are reassuring."

Barkley's problems began when Bath played Worcester at the Recreation Ground in the fourth game of the campaign. "I was," he recalls succinctly, "kicked in the nuts. It was a freak thing; I tackled Drew Hickey, their No 8, and was caught by his boot as we hit the ground. It wasn't quite the most painful thing I'd ever experienced - I fell from a moving car at the age of nine, which wasn't the best - but I felt a huge degree of discomfort, especially when I attempted to kick a goal from 45 metres. I'm a round-the-corner kicker and the action cramped my bits even more, so it wasn't the brightest decision in retrospect.

"When the doctor took a look at me and discovered I'd split a testicle - not the sac, mind you, but the really important bit inside - I was in surgery within 90 minutes. The hospital people said it was wise not to hang around, because there was a real risk I'd lose part of my manhood. Happily, they did their usual brilliant job and it turned out fine. I'm all there."

He was back between the shafts - no pun intended - inside four weeks, but then fractured a bone in his hand at Saracens. "It was hard to take," he says. "I'd felt really strong in pre-season and started the season well. I was getting good feedback from Brian, who was running the England attack game under Andy Robinson at that point, and I fancied my chances of getting an opportunity when the All Blacks arrived for the first of the autumn Tests.

"Suddenly, there was this bloody great break in momentum. What made it even more difficult was the fact that I'd spent so much of my career free of injury. For four years, I'd suffered nothing worse than a minor turn of the ankle. It was new to me, missing games week after week. I'd always recognised the reality of professional rugby, but that didn't make it easier for me to deal with the disappointment."

Deal with it he has, though. Much to his credit, he has returned to the Bath set-up more motivated then ever. "I'm seeing a new maturity," says Steve Meehan, the director of rugby at the Rec. "Certainly, people who have been at this club a lot longer than me think he has matured a great deal. I sat down with Olly a while ago and told him: 'It's easy for me to tell you what I think about your game. Why don't you go away, look at the tapes and tell me what you think about it?' Which he did. He pinpointed the areas he felt needed work, and those were the same areas I'd identified. Since then, he's become an increasingly important member of the group, putting across his ideas in a confident, very vocal manner. What the England people want to see from him I don't know, but he's doing the things I want to see. He's quite an asset."

Too great an asset, it might be argued. Sometimes, Meehan hands Barkley the No 10 shirt and tells him to run the show from the pivot position. Sometimes, he shunts him to full-back and asks him to make sense of an unfamiliar role that barely suits him, if at all. The coach accepts that this is far from ideal in terms of a player's representative ambitions - "Flexibility can be a man's greatest weakness as well as his greatest strength; it can come back to bite him," he conceded - but makes no apology for putting the team first.

More often than not over recent weeks, however, Barkley has found himself in that position of inside centre. The statistics tell a tale. Bath have won seven of their last nine matches; in the last three, they have scored 15 tries. Teams tend not to do that sort of thing if their midfield is misfiring. "We're in decent shape, individually and collectively," he says. "After the injuries there was bound to be a period of playing my way back into form, but I think it's coming together now. Unfortunately, it was a case of too little too late with regard to the Six Nations.

"I can understand why I wasn't picked. That doesn't mean I'm happy about it, of course, but I can see the reasoning. To me, it's black and white: if you don't play well, you don't get in. If they don't pick you when you're playing out of your skin, you have every right to get pissy about things. As things stand, though, I can't complain too much. I haven't played enough really good rugby to force a place in the England thinking. Now is the time to start addressing the situation."

Assuming he addresses it satisfactorily over the remaining 15 weekends of the season, he will surely bag himself a trip to Springbok country.

Once there, it will be up to him. England may have one of the most accomplished rugby league players ever to emerge in these islands in their union midfield, but they are not so blessed that they can afford to shrug their shoulders in Barkley's direction. Sir Clive Woodward once picked him for a tour of North America sight unseen. The good knight's successors know full well what he looks like. The least they can do is run an eye over him.

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