On the face of it, there could be no better time for Olly Barkley to resuscitate his ailing international career than next month, when England play two Tests against Argentina: one in Salta, situated in the foothills of the Andes; the other in Manchester, located on the wet side of the Pennines.
There will certainly be a vacancy in midfield, what with Riki Flutey hunting Springboks with the Lions and Toby Flood hobbling around on crutches, and Barkley is acutely aware of the need to stop sliding down the pecking order and start climbing again. His decision? Not this summer, thanks.
He has spoken to Martin Johnson, the England manager, and Brian Smith, the attack coach, and informed them he would rather spend the coming weeks getting his head back together, his emotions in check and his body in proper shape for next season, when he will reappear at Bath – the great love of his rugby life. Had the 27-year-old goalkicker not chosen to leave Bath in the first place, he would surely be playing in today's Premiership semi-final at Leicester and be in an entirely different place psychologically. But as he tells me: "Sometimes, you have to learn your lessons in a way you'd rather not learn them." By which he means the hard way.
This time last year, Barkley bade a tearful farewell to life at the Rec and headed off into the sunset – or rather, to Gloucester, which in his case amounted to the same thing. Six months into his two-year contract, he found himself in a position every bit as painful as it was awkward. He realised he was missing Bath even more than he had expected – "It was as though I'd left part of my heart behind" – and had convinced himself that he could not settle at Kingsholm.
Over the ensuing weeks of stress and strain, he was dropped from England's elite squad and struggled to hold down a place at club level. From being an outside bet for the Lions tour, he had become a lost soul.
Yet he was not so lost that he did not know how to find himself again. If only he could negotiate a return to Bath, he figured, all would be well. He mentioned to Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, that he was unhappy at Kingsholm, and while Meehan could not immediately commit himself, there were clear signs of interest. He also spoke to Dean Ryan, his coach at Gloucester. "I told him that I didn't think this was the place for me and asked him if he'd consider releasing me," Barkley recalls. "He said that subject to certain criteria being met, he'd agree to it. The discussion lasted about 10 minutes and, contrary to popular belief, it was very amicable."
There are a number of flawed assumptions and faulty perceptions that Barkley is keen to address. "Both Bath and Gloucester are rugby cities where rumour gets around and ends up being accepted as fact," he says. "For a start, I didn't go to Gloucester for more money. I went for quite a bit less, I promise you.
"Another thing: my decision to leave Bath had nothing to do with my court case." This is a reference to an assault charge that hung over Barkley for 10 months before being dropped just as he was preparing himself for the ordeal of a Crown Court hearing. "That episode caused me a lot of pain and heartache," he continues, "but I dealt with it as best I could and the club helped me all the way along. I went to Gloucester for two reasons: I liked the rugby they were playing, and I felt that if I signed a new deal at Bath – and I was offered very generous terms – I'd be there for the rest of my career. Of course, I know now that that was precisely what I wanted, deep down. But it's the same old story, the old cliché, isn't it? You don't know how much you love some of the things you have in your life until you let them go."
When it was finally confirmed, after weeks of speculation, that Barkley would leave Gloucester a year early, there was much talk of a serious falling-out with the formidably forthright Ryan. Barkley is equally unhesitating when it comes to voicing his opinions, but the way he tells it, there was no ill feeling between the two of them. "I've never been one to throw my toys out," he insists. "It gets you nowhere.
"Yes, I put forward ideas and tried to make the case for doing things a different way – a way I felt would get our game-breaking players, the Iain Balshaws and James Simpson-Daniels, more involved more often – but as I'd been brought in to be part of the senior player group, I don't think anyone expected anything different. I may not have won the argument, but I don't remember falling out with a single member of the coaching staff during my time there.
"The point is, I don't want to blame anyone other than myself for the way things turned out. Yes, there were aspects of style and strategy that Dean and I didn't agree on: I went there to play the second receiver's role, only to find we were embracing a brand of rugby that didn't offer me the scope to do the things I felt I did best. But ultimately, I was the one who played badly, who didn't perform – the one whose goal-kicking average dropped off, who made fewer line-breaks than expected.
"The supporters at Kingsholm had every right to be disappointed with what they saw from me, but I'd like them to know this much: I was always the last bloke off the training field, I never stopped trying and I never stopped caring. If I wasn't suited to Gloucester, it says more about me than it does about the club."
Barkley accepts that by making himself unavailable for England's forthcoming business with the Pumas, he is taking an almighty risk. "That was made clear to me when I spoke to Martin and Brian, but I'd already worked it out for myself," he says. "It's just that I feel I need this time to get myself sorted. By not touring, I can have the kind of pre-season that hasn't been available to me for years. I can take four weeks off, then spend another four training on my own before joining up with Bath and hitting the ground running.
"When it comes to my place in the England set-up, I'm completely realistic about how much the last year has cost me. I lost my place in the Elite Player Squad before the Six Nations because I wasn't playing nearly well enough to justify inclusion. It was a straight shoot-out with Shane Geraghty, which he deserved to win and did. If I'm back in the EPS now, it's only because Shane picked up an injury. If you asked me to rate my chances of still being involved when the new squad is announced in July, I'd have to say they aren't great. It may be that I won't get a shot at the autumn internationals, either.
"Does it hurt, not being in the England mix? It always hurts. But I'm not the sort to wallow in negativity, and while I understand that I'm gambling here – that there's a chance I'll slide even further down the ladder – I'm prepared to give it a go. If England pick me again, it will be through the quality of my performance in the Premiership and Heineken Cup. And the only way I can see to deliver that quality is to get myself absolutely right for the new season."
Many consider the 2007-08 campaign at Bath, during which the club reached the Premiership semi-finals and won the European Challenge Cup, to have been Barkley's finest. He kicked 84 per cent of his goals – a very high figure indeed – while giving full rein to his creative instincts as a playmaker. Meehan has stopped well short of guaranteeing the prodigal son an immediate place in the first team on his return, but no one seriously doubts that Barkley will feature in the games that really matter.
"Looking back, it's obvious that I made a bad decision to leave," he admits. "But hindsight is a beautiful, annoying thing. All I want now is to look forward, find ways of being a better player and give something to the supporters, who have never been anything other than wonderful to me. The last time I felt like this, I was still at school: I'd had a taste of life at Bath and couldn't wait to finish my exams, return to the club and throw myself into it. It's good to recapture that same sense of excitement."Reuse content