Baa-Baas give ragtag England the runaround

England 26 Barbarians 33
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The Independent Online

It was a surreal afternoon in the sweltering sun at red rose HQ.

It started with both sets of players – England's new boys, fringe men and Lions rejects; the Barbarians' been there, seen it and done it merchants – "warming up" in the centre of the arena while Paul O'Connell and Co played out their rusty Rustenburg tour opener on the big screens at either end of the stadium, with the commentary of Miles Harrison and Stuart Barnes echoing around the half-empty arena. It finished with the career highlights of Martin Corry and Josh Lewsey flashing across the big screens while the two retiring England stalwarts took an emotional bow and celebrated a farewell victory against – well, against England, of all teams.

Lewsey, after a final fling for the Baa-Baas against the Wallabies in Sydney next Saturday, is off to climb Everest soon. Martin Johnson has got something similar on his plate as he guides his England squad towards the looming peak of the 2011 World Cup. That squad has a somewhat disparate look to it at present, what with nine players out in South Africa on Lions duty and several more injured. How many of the novices will last the course to 2011 remains to be seen, although at least one of their number stood up to be counted in the non-cap contest.

The most surreal sight of the 80 minutes was probably Doug Howlett stretching up his arms to gather a kick to the corner from Andy Goode seven minutes from time, only to find a giant spitfire coming out of the sun to thwart him. Matt Banahan, the big Bath wing with the spitfire tattoo down one side of his body, used every inch of his 6ft 7in frame to pluck the ball from the clutches of the All Black.

It was the fourth try of the afternoon by an England new boy – following five-point scores from Ben Foden, Jordan Turner-Hall and Tom May – and it was the one that left the biggest impression, for the look of sheer bemusement on the face of Howlett if nothing else.

"No, he didn't say anything to me at the time," Banahan said in the aftermath of his first senior England appearance. "I asked him after the game if I could have his shirt but he said it was his first one for the Barbarians and he wanted to keep it. To play against someone of such calibre, you can't really explain how good it is to come off the field and, even though we'd lost, feel quite happy within yourself with your own performance."

It would be happier for Banahan, and England, if the 22-year-old Channel Islander happened to be blessed with the kind of searing pace Howlett took into his 62-cap international career, having been a champion schoolboy sprinter with a best 100 metre time of 10.68sec. Still, with his height and his 18st bulk, Banahan is a unit of Lomuesque dimensions and he skittled down Howlett on several occasions. With David Strettle ruled out with an abdominal illness, the big Jersey boy will be seconded from Churchill Cup duty with the England Saxons to stay with the senior party for the Tests against Argentina at Old Trafford this Saturday and in Salta seven days later.

Of the bevy of first-time starters and debutants, Johnson singled out Banahan's new Bath colleague Davey Wilson for praise. "I thought he played very, very well," the England manager said of the tight-head prop from South Shields who has flourished as a Newcastle Falcon. Not that Johnson was a very happy man on Saturday evening.

The England manager was pleased that Steve Thompson returned to the international fray in the final quarter, albeit with a wayward throw-in to his first line-out, but he was not greatly chuffed at seeing his experimental side pulled out of position and given something of a runaround (not least by Lewsey and Iain Balshaw) before salvaging some measure of respectability from a deficit that stood at 5-33 11 minutes into the second half. "There were times when we didn't show the urgency to get back into shape defensively," Johnson lamented. "There was a little bit of hesitancy in our game. You can't have that in Test matches."

Scorers: England: Tries Foden, Turner-Hall, May, Banahan; Conversions Goode 3. Barbarians: Tries Balshaw 2, Jack, Elsom, D'Arcy; Conversions Blair 4.

England: D Armitage; B Foden, J Noon (T May, 40), J Turner-Hall, M Banahan; A Goode, D Care; T Payne (N Wood, 53), D Hartley (S Thompson, 60), D Wilson, S Borthwick (capt), L Deacon (J Haskell, 66), C Robshaw, N Easter, L Moody (S Armitage, 53).

Barbarians: B Blair; D Howlett, J Lewsey (M Catt, 64), G D'Arcy, I Balshaw (R Nasiganiyavi, 49); G Jackson, J Marshall (C Whitaker, 71); C Dermody (Somerville, 66), S Brits (S Bruno, 57), G Somerville (B J Botha, 49), M Corry (capt), C Jack (P Tito, 64), J Collins, R Elsom, S Betsen (P Waugh, 57).

Referee: R Poite (France).