England left bereft by Barkley's withdrawal

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The Independent Online

If England did not have enough midfield problems ahead of their opening Six Nations Championship match with Wales at Twickenham on Saturday week, the sudden withdrawal of Olly Barkley might have been designed to transform a major issue into a minor crisis. Had the Bath centre started last year's contest in Cardiff, the world champions would probably have won and spared themselves the acute pain of watching their opponents secure a first Grand Slam in more than a quarter of a century. Now, his country will have to do without his cultured kicking game a second time.

Barkley should have spent yesterday training with the 36-man England squad at Loughborough University. Instead, he was declared hors de combat after dislocating his right thumb while playing at outside-half in his club's heavy Heineken Cup defeat by Leinster at the weekend. He was expected to consult a specialist last night but Andy Robinson, the national coach, is holding out little hope of being able to pick him before the third game of the tournament, against Scotland at Murrayfield on 25 February.

Bath are not performing cartwheels at the news either, given the importance they attach to this weekend's Premiership meeting with Wasps at the Recreation Ground. England, however, will be marginally the more concerned. The peas-in-a-pod midfield pairing of Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon was probably the least successful aspect of the autumn international series and, as it highlighted the need for an accomplished kicker in the inside-centre position, Barkley was an obvious candidate.

Four specialist centres - Tindall and Noon, plus the injury-prone pairing of Stuart Abbott of Wasps and James Simpson-Daniel of Gloucester - are now left to Robinson, although he will now ponder a recall for Ollie Smith of Leicester. However, Barkley's misfortune might persuade the coach to give even more consideration to shifting Josh Lewsey from full-back, where he plays his international rugby, to midfield, a position he inhabits at club level. Robinson is scheduled to trim his squad to 30 after the weekend's Premiership activity, which could easily leave him with a ward-full of injuries.

One player who did complete the training stint in the East Midlands was Lawrence Dallaglio, the 33-year-old World Cup winner and former captain whose enthusiasm would do justice to a player half his age. "I'm delighted to be here," he said. "It's a first step for me - I've been asking for it, it's happened and now I'm in the squad. But I understand as well as anyone the amount of hard work it will take to get back in the team and then to stay in it. England have moved on from the World Cup experience and rightly so. I don't know when I'll get my chance - it may be in the first game, it may not. It's a question of being in the right shape, physically and mentally, to take the opportunity when it arrives."

Meanwhile, the prospect of a third all-French Heineken Cup final in four years grew significantly yesterday when the two most powerful Tricolore teams left in the tournament, Toulouse and Biarritz, missed each other in the draw for the semi-finals, which will be played in late April. The winners of the Biarritz-Sale quarter-final will meet the survivors of the last-eight tie between Leicester and Bath, which is likely to take place at the Walkers Stadium rather than Welford Road. In the other semi-final, either Toulouse or Leinster will have home advantage - or at least, the advantage of playing in their own country - over the winners of the Munster-Perpignan match.