High time for Barkley to be the running man

Heineken Cup: Bath's gifted playmaker is itching to set his attacking instincts free for both club and country
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The Independent Online

While England spent the best part of the season running into a cul-de-sac, Olly Barkley was twiddling his thumbs. Well, one of them. The other was in no fit state to hitch a lift or pull out a plum, as a tackle against Leinster in the Heineken Cup went horribly wrong and at the worst possible time.

He did not just dislocate the thumb but also tore a ligament, and while it may not have been as damaged as Andy Farrell's wretched big toe, it required an operation, the insertion of two pins, a cast, a splint and a season ticket with a hand physiotherapist in Bristol. Had Barkley, who was out of action for 10 weeks, been playing for Bath it is odds on that Andy Robinson would have called him into England's midfield during the disastrous Six Nations campaign.

Instead, Barkley had to watch England on television - although he did get to Twickenham on a couple of occasions, working in corporate hospitality for Mike Burton. The consensus was that the Mike Tindall-Jamie Noon partnership did not work, but you will not find Barkley, a paid-up member of the Red Rose centres union, slagging them off.

"People forget that Mike and Jamie had to adapt to different roles. At Newcastle, Jamie usually played at 12 inside Mathew Tait, but for England he was asked to play 13, which is Mike's position. Individually, they are excellent players and have a lot to offer. They are similar players and things didn't click, but it wasn't their fault. They did their best."

Newcastle, who play Sale today, have left out Noon and replaced him with Tait, who was a spectacular success in the recent sevens tournament at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. "Jamie's much more creative than people give him credit for," Barkley added. "I used to enjoy playing alongside him. It's a question of getting the balance right, and you wonder if England had a clear idea of how they wanted to play. There was also a lot of pressure on Charlie Hodgson to make all the plays."

Which is where Barkley comes in, especially as he has been reunited with Brian Ashton, the former England backs coach, who somehow has led Bath on the one hand to a Heineken Cup semi-final meeting with Biarritz in the Catalan hotbed of San Sebastian next Saturday while with the other attempting to keep their head above the relegation waters.

The two worked together at the England Academy, and there is a mutual admiration. "I was absolutely delighted when Brian came back to Bath," Barkley said. "He has a new way of thinking which is very different. You hear things you have never heard before, and in that regard he's a very brave coach. He's not scared of putting anything forward, and it's important to buy into that with an open mind. You won't see the effect of his work until next season."

And here the plot gets thicker than double cheddar. In England's forthcoming review, Ashton is in the frame for a return to Twickenham. You might have thought that would leave Barkley in a no-lose situation. Not so. "I would be gutted if Brian left Bath. He is one of the main reasons I decided to stay at the club."

Last month, and after much soul-searching, Barkley signed an extension to his contract to 2008. "I had a couple of offers and I thought of leaving Bath. With the World Cup coming up it could be a huge season for me, and I thought that a change would be good. But we have made some good signings, and in the end I went for stability and the prospect of working with a great coach. I would love to see Brian stay at the Rec for purely selfish reasons. I would spend more time with him. If he goes, our loss will be England's gain."

So it is possible that when England go to Australia this summer Ashton and Barkley will meet up again with John "Knuckles" Connolly, who left Bath in mid-season and is now in charge of the Wallabies.

"I learned a lot of things from Knuckles, but it's not how I would like to have played the game," Barkley said. "Basically he went for field position first, whereas Brian likes to run. The perfect balance between the two can be found in New Zealand."

Barkley, who says he is "gagging" to go on the two-Test trip to Australia, played at stand-off yesterday evening against Bristol in place of the injured Chris Malone, who had been the goal-kicking match-winner in an epic rearguard victory over Leicester at the Walkers Stadium in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

It marked Barkley's comeback and was useful acclimatisation (30,000 Tigers fans with flags to 2,000 Bathonians with scarves and baseball caps) to what they will experience in San Sebastian. "Competition in Europe is more intense than the Premiership, so we seem to have suffered a form of dyslexia in the league," Barkley said. "We have recognised it's a mental thing. There's no way we should be where we are. The beautiful thing is that we can put in huge performances and we're not put off by hostile venues."

The same could not be said for Sale, who went quietly out in the quarters to Biarritz. "I was surprised to see such an inanimate game," Barkley said. "Sale were too conservative, and you can't play like that over there and survive. You have to take a few risks. I'll be kicking myself if we go out without trying a few things. I'll ring Charlie [Hodgson] to get some pointers."

Barkley - he won the first of only 14 caps against the US Eagles in 2001 despite never having played at senior club level - is not sure whether he prefers playing 10 or 12. "I've been playing stand-off on and off for three years, and you have to play a lot to learn how to control a game. I just love playing with attacking people, particularly an inside- centre who has the whole bag of tricks."

It brings us back to the England debate. "We have lost it a wee bit. There's too much emphasis on size and strength. It's important, but no matter how big you are there's no match for footwork and speed.

"There may be less space than there used to be, but if you attack out wide you can still find daylight. It's a belief thing."