Banahan does star turn in Johnson's talent show

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The Independent Online

It was that time again when the Barbarians were not just at the gates of England's HQ but pouring through them. Not everyone of a red rose persuasion has always relished the prospect of their visit for the traditional end-of-season bash.

Take the following piece of Baa Baas humbug: "These are just a revenue-earner for someone; they certainly aren't for the benefit of the players and they dilute the quality of the game overall. With little at stake, they can be slightly irrelevant to play in and watch."

Ah, but that was when Martin Johnson was an England player with a marathon season to get through, and an autobiography to fill with a blunt frankness.

These days the old Leicester totem is an England team manager with a squad to fill on the road to the 2011 World Cup. Yesterday's non-cap show was an opportunity to put some outside contenders to the test: England's Got Talent – or not, as the case may be.

From his perch in the West Stand, Johnno was in the Simon Cowell role as his wannabes took the stage against a Barbarians side boasting 632 caps worth of experience.

There were four uncapped players in his starting XV: Matt Banahan, Jordan Turner-Hall, Davey Wilson and Chris Robshaw. There were also two other first-time starters: Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley.

The question was: which of the novices would step up to the mark ahead of the Test matches to come against Argentina at Old Trafford next Saturday and in Salta seven days later?

Banahan was the first to get a chance to make a mark. Six minutes in, the big battering ram of a Bath wing took a delightfully deft fingertip pass from Delon Armitage and set off up the left touchline.

He got 10 yards or so before Gordon D'Arcy hauled him down. It was not the only impression the 22-year-old Channel Islander made in the opening half as the new-look England struggled to get going in the sunshine. The new boy knocked back Doug Howlett, a veteran of 62 All Black appearances, on a couple of occasions. His time was to come late in the game.

It was on the other wing where the action was in the first half. Unhappily for Foden, most of it came in his direction. With nine minutes on the clock, the scrum-half-turned full-back – pressed into right wing duty yesterday – got caught in possession on England's 22 metre line as he attempted to run a ball he ought to have hoofed.

Five minutes later he was caught badly out of position when Josh Lewsey slid a grubber kick into his corner for Iain Balshaw to claim the opening score. Still, having left Sale a year ago seeking to establish himself as a scrum-half, only to have found himself catching the eye again as a full-back, the makeshift wing could have been excused a little disorientation.

To be fair to Foden, he did proceed to show his attacking flair, not least in fending off D'Arcy and Balshaw to score in the right corner after taking a fine inside pass from the Harlequins flanker Robshaw. That breakthrough for England came after 32 minutes, with the crowd already Mexican Waving and the furrowed-browed Johnson looking distinctly unimpressed.

Thereafter, Johnno's boys were not so much waving as in danger of drowning under a flood of Barbarian points. That was until a trio of scores from new boys Turner-Hall – the barrel-chested Quins centre – Tom May, blooded as a centre off the bench, and big Banahan, all applying finishing touches to prompts from the boot of Andy Goode.

In the end, the new Englanders finished just seven points short of the Baa Baas. Not that Banahan could be accused of coming up short. He used every inch of his 6ft 7in frame to pluck Goode's kick to the corner right out of the clutches of Howlett. The All Black looked greatly bemused.