Bath's shock au revoir to Olly Barkley risks fan anger
The multimillionaire Bath owner, Bruce Craig, is something of a Francophile but a good number of the West Country club's long-suffering supporters are suddenly wondering whether he takes this entente cordiale lark just a little too seriously.
Craig, still a resident of Provence having made his business fortune on the far side of the Channel, flabbergasted the Recreation Ground faithful yesterday by allowing the England midfielder Olly Barkley to sign for the wealthy Parisian club Racing Métro, whom he will join before the month is out.
Barkley may have fallen short at international level, not least because he was messed around by successive England coaching regimes, but he was pure gold dust for Bath – as he proved at Worcester in the first game of this Premiership campaign, when his flawless goal-kicking enabled his side to leave Sixways with a victory they scarcely merited.
Craig, who played for Racing in one of its previous incarnations and is well acquainted with the French club's current owner Jacky Lorenzetti, may see this off-loading as a reasonable piece of business, but many of the folk on the terraces will beg to differ.
Racing, who unlike Bath have qualified for this season's Heineken Cup, identified Barkley as a possible target after finding themselves short of options at outside-half. Juan Martin Hernandez, the celebrated Argentine playmaker, is on Test duty with the Pumas and will be for some weeks yet, while Jonathan Wisniewski and Benjamin Dambielle are struggling with long-term injuries. Permitted under French league rules to sign a so-called "medical joker", they decided to throw big bucks at a man they knew to be out of contract at the end of the season.
Being under pressure at No 10 themselves – neither Stephen Donald, the All Black outside-half, nor the gifted youngster Tom Heathcote have been fit enough to play this season, although Donald has an even-money chance of featuring against London Irish tomorrow – the Bath hierarchy must have been in two minds about letting Barkley go, especially as there was no offer of a transfer fee. But his departure will give the club the chance to make a significant new signing or two while staying within the salary cap.
"When I no longer play the game, Bath will be the club I watch," Barkley commented. "It's in my heart. But this is the opportunity of a lifetime –one I just couldn't ignore. I'd like to thank the club for their understanding."
For his part, the new rugby director, Gary Gold, said he understood the player's decision. "I could not have been more impressed with Olly's attitude since I arrived here: he could not have worked harder," the South African remarked. "But every now and then, an offer lands on the table that a bloke just can't refuse."
Almost as short of hookers as they are of outside-halves, Bath moved yesterday for the former Northampton front-rower Brett Sharman – an injury-prone forward who left the Midlands club under a cloud just before the start of the season after making a tawdry comment about the double Olympic champion Mo Farah on Twitter.
London Welsh have made just one enforced change for tonight's match at Sale, flanker Michael Hills replacing the injured Mike Denbee. Sale have revamped their back row to include Mark Easter and Andrew Powell.
As expected, the Northampton back Ben Foden will miss England's autumn internationals after suffering an ankle ligament injury during his club's Premiership victory at Bath a week ago. Foden, recently moved from full-back to left wing by the national coach Stuart Lancaster, is unlikely to play again this side of Christmas.
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