Olly Barkley explains his sudden leap out of Bath
As he prepares for his farewell game at the Rec, the midfield ace tells Chris Hewett why he had to take the opportunity to fulfil a long-held ambition of playing in France
Saturday 29 September 2012
If there were certain aspects of the bittersweet 2007 World Cup campaign in France that stuck in Olly Barkley's throat, France itself was not one of them. "I loved the place from the moment the England squad set up camp in Versailles," says the departing Bath midfielder, "and ever since that tournament there has been half a thought at the back of my mind that I'd like to play there at some point in my career." And so it has come to pass: a vague idea that first occurred to him five years ago, suddenly realised in five minutes flat.
"It's been a weird couple of weeks, and this game will feel even weirder," he continues, referring to this afternoon's Premiership meeting with Sale at the Recreation Ground – a fixture that signals the end of Barkley's career at the club he joined as a teenager and which in many ways he has come to symbolise. Bath and Barkley are one and the same: if there have been splashes of colour, touches of class and many a hint of rich promise unfulfilled about the team in recent years, something very similar can be said of their principal source of points.
As recently as the beginning of this month, Barkley was concentrating all his efforts on building a productive relationship with a brand new back-room team headed by the South African coach Gary Gold. "Right from the start, there was a good vibe around the place," he recalls. "I thought to myself: 'Gary knows what he's doing. Once we take on the new ideas and bed everything down, we might find ourselves going somewhere'." Then, on the far side of the Channel, the Parisian side Racing Metro lost two goal-kicking backs in the course of a single game against Clermont Auvergne, and Barkley's life changed.
"Racing were up the creek without a paddle," he says. "Pretty quickly, they were in touch with my agent and before I knew it the possibility of a move was there in front of me. I wasn't keen at first, to be honest with you: I was in the last year of my contract with Bath and I wanted to see it out. But after speaking to friends and family – and I include a good few of my clubmates in that description – I started looking at it in a different way. The chance to play in Paris, with a set-up as good as Racing Metro's? It might not come my way again. Not at my age.
"As a rugby player you have a certain value, a value that diminishes year on year. Once you reach your thirties – I'll be 31 in November – that process starts speeding up. While playing in the French Top 14 championship had been an ambition of mine for a while, I wouldn't have wanted to go over there and not perform well. If I was going to move there, I wanted to do it the way Jonny Wilkinson and Iain Balshaw have done it. They went when they were still capable of developing as players, of adding new skills and doing things differently to the way they did them in England. So when I thought it through, this seemed the right time to try it out."
There will be some English rugby folk who believe Barkley is going for the money alone, and it is certainly true that Racing Metro have pots of the stuff. They have just opened a state-of-the-art training facility in the south-western reaches of the French capital, are building themselves a new 30,000-capacity stadium near the swish business district of La Défense and can still afford to keep a player as good as the Argentina maestro Juan Martin Hernandez, "le Maradona du rugby", on their books. Whatever Barkley finds when he arrives in the City of Light next week, he will not find himself out of pocket.
But the financial rewards are not the be-all and end-all for a player first picked for England, pretty much sight unseen, by the then unknighted Clive Woodward, who had heard of a special talent starting to flower down there in the West Country and promptly picked the Cornwall-raised midfielder for the red-rose tour of North America in 2001. Most pressing in Barkley's mind is to cram in as much rugby-playing experience as possible while his fitness holds.
In March of last year, during a derby set-to with Gloucester at Kingsholm, he fractured his left leg – his kicking leg – so gruesomely that hardened professional players on both sides were sickened by the degree of orthopaedic trauma he suffered. His shattered tibia and fibula were pinned and screwed back into place within hours of the incident, but he would not reappear in Bath colours for eight long and profoundly frustrating months. And when he did return, he found the going hard.
"I had a bad winter with the leg," he admits. "I found it difficult coming to terms with the pins: I could get through a basic training session, but I couldn't manage all the extras I was used to doing because of the soreness and stiffness. I'm more comfortable with things now, and all the indications are that this season will be a lot more comfortable for me in the physical sense. It's one of the things I took into account when the Racing Metro offer came in. If I'd left it another year – if I'd decided to play through to the end of my Bath contract and then look to move – would it have been too late?
"All these things were running through my mind and it wasn't an easy call, so I'll always be grateful to Bath for supporting me in the way they did. They've been amazingly generous, amazingly understanding. Gary said to me: 'We don't want to lose you, but there are some opportunities a player can't refuse.' I'm just praying I can deliver something for the club this weekend. There'll be a lot of emotion flying around inside me, but somehow I'll have to put it to one side and focus on doing my job. If I can do that, I'll enjoy my last walk around the Rec."
Barkley does not expect to play club rugby in England again. "Bath have left the door open for me and it's a beautiful gesture, but even if things don't go well for me at Racing Metro, I'll probably stay in France and try to make it work for me at another club. That's the way I'm looking at it now, at least. I left Bath once before, when I spent a year at Gloucester, but looking back, I'm not sure I ever really left the Rec then. It felt like I had a foot in both cities. This is a complete break – a move to a new country, to a different style of rugby. I want to make a go of it if I possibly can."
As we're looking back, does Barkley regret his failure to make a real go of it in England colours (below)? There were many times between 2004 and 2010 when he looked like an international-calibre midfielder – the man most likely to give a one-dimensional, leaden-footed, slow-witted red-rose back division the lift it so desperately needed. Had he not been played out of position at important moments and generally messed around by more than one national coach, he might have been quite something.
"Regrets? Probably not," he says. "If you had come up to me as a 16-year-old and told me I'd win 20-odd caps for my country, I'm sure I'd have settled for it. Maybe I should have achieved more at international level; maybe I had the ability to do more than I did. But I'm not of a mind to blame other people for that. If I'd played better in certain games, if I'd managed to string together some matches and really get the feel of Test rugby, it could have been different. But it's in the past, isn't it? Can't change it now."
Life in France may change Barkley, but the essence of his rugby will stay the same. More than perhaps any player currently earning his corn in the Premiership, he has a touch of the old amateur spirit about him: like Stuart Barnes and John Palmer and John Horton of old, he is part of a very grand Bath midfield lineage. Which explains why the paying public respect him, and will be sorry to see him go.
Barkley: In figures
161: Games Barkley has played for Bath in the Premiership
1,447: Premiership points scored for Bath in his two spells at the club
23: Number of times Barkley has been capped by England
2: Times he has broken his left leg, first in 2009 and again in 2011
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