Gloucester are facing one of those mini-schedules of fixtures which can define a season. Today's trip to Newcastle kicks off the second half of Premiership fixtures – and Gloucester, as usual, have an eye on the title – then there are home and away blood-curdlers against Cardiff Blues and Biarritz to settle one of the toughest pools in the Heineken Cup.
Standing on this tantalising but teetering threshold obliges Olly Barkley to be circumspect. Though the Six Nations' Championship and a possible England recall is less than a month away, the inside-centre's head was not for turning: "I'd love to play for England again, love to, but I've got three big club matches to think about first."
The team Barkley joined from Bath last summer is accustomed to looking into the abyss of self-destruction and diving headlong in. Gloucester are consistently good, yet consistentlytrophyless. Premiership knockout defeats are their speciality; likewise, a single semi-final in six seasons of Heineken Cup endeavour is a poor return for what the Americans would call one of England's most winningest clubs. They can field an all-international XV (injuries permitting), they have the ground and the support, and they are hopeful that this time around they will deliver the big wins at the right time. Yet when Barkley admits candidly that he is "nowhere near" having a complete understanding with his fly-halves, Ryan Lamb and Willie Walker, it fits the picture of fragile self-confidence.
"There's a shitload more to give from Gloucester at the moment," says Barkley. "We're second in the league yet we've been nowhere near playing as well as we can. The Heineken Cup will be hard. We have to produce big results in two big games. But we're capable of it." In the reverse fixtures last October they defeated Biarritz 22-10 but were beaten 37-24 by the Blues at the Millennium Stadium. In the EDF Energy Cup during the same period they won 11-10 at Newcastle, and Gloucester are the only English club still fighting in the three principal competitions.
Individually, a Gloucester player's motto might be "no banana skin knowingly avoided". Mike Tindall was handed a three-year drink-driving ban the other day; Lesley Vainikolo has a recently ruptured Achilles tendon, which ruled him out for the season, to go with an appearance at Bristol Crown Court on an assault charge this week. There have been injuries to other England players – James Simpson-Daniel, Olly Morgan, Iain Balshaw, Luke Narraway – though these are par for any club's course. Barkley announced his move last year while sitting out last year's Six Nations: a pending court app- earance had prompted England, then coached by Brian Ashton, to drop him.
"The bottom line is that professionalathletes will always be targets, whether they've done nothing or something," says Barkley, when the subject of Vainikolo and his alleged altercation outside a Bath bar crops up. "Lesley is the nicest, most kindhearted bloke you will meet." Barkley spent eight months waiting for his own case to be heard after an incident at a wedding party in summer 2007 until it was dropped and the charge dismissed. His only regrets were the estimated £125,000 costs met by the taxpayer, and the Six Nations chance missed.
"I haven't had much luck with England," Barkley, 27, says. "I was due to start in the autumn one year and I broke my hand. I was due to start in the Six Nations in 2006 but I dislocated my thumb." His only appearance in 2008 was the First Test in New Zealand. "I'm not going to say that luck is the reason I haven't got 50 caps [he has 23], because it just happens. Nothing good comes from saying, 'What if', nothing at all."
It seems more of a "when" than an "if" to Barkley that he will be with England when they muster, lucky things, for training in Portugal at the end of this month. The closest Barkley got to a cap last autumn was peering round the manager Martin Johnson's head in the West Stand at Twickenham, watching the 42-6 hammering by South Africa after he was summoned as injury cover. Riki Flutey, the Kiwi convert, was selected ahead of him in the No 12 jersey, and the more phases England's attack went through, the less they created. "At times guys were getting lost," says Barkley, "but that's because of new patterns. The patterns [attack coach] Brian Smith is using are very good, they're sound and will work if the execution's good."
There is more where that came from. Barkley describes his current "learning curve" with Gloucester and his views of inside-centre play with a likeable manner, and an easy-on-the-ear patois of "mate, this" and "mate, that" which tell of his upbringing on the surf beaches of Cornwall plus a year or so in New Zealand. "A large part of the second receiver's job is organisation of forwards," he says. "Making sure they don't 'honeypot' and over-committo rucks, so that after four or five phasesyou're not all stuck in 35 metres of space which is not hard to defend. Having options across the field is important."
Sometimes he is more succinct, if Lawrence Dallaglio's autobiography is to be believed of an exchange between Barkley and Ashton during the 2007 World Cup: "Look Brian, no one's got a fucking clue how we're supposed to be playing here."
Barkley's face would be in the frame if you were making an identikit of a multi-talented secondary playmaker – which was just what Ashton espoused in his No 12s for Bath and England. That was then and this is now, and Barkley kicked the penalty which edged Gloucester to one of their typically anxious victories over Saracens last week. "I had an idea about how it would go for me at Gloucester, how hard it would be and how long it would take – and I was pretty inaccurate in all three," he says. "Hopefully it should get easier from now on."Reuse content