England see a good deal of value in these annual "hit-outs" against the world's most celebrated invitation team, coming as they do before testing end-of-season visits to the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately for this Australia-bound party, the latest Barbarian combination were all "out" and no "hit" for much of the proceedings at Twickenham yesterday evening. Not only did they miss tackles the average rugby-playing infant might have expected to make, they also showed a distinct lack of interest in trying to make them in the first place.
Between them, the uncapped South African lock Ross Skeate and the similarly undecorated Australian full-back Paul Warwick did everything in their power to present Martin Johnson's side with cheap points, as did two colleagues who know what it is to play Test rugby and should therefore have made a better fist of it: the French centre Florian Fritz (18 international appearances) and the World Cup-winning Leicester second-rower Ben Kay (62 of the things.) By the time they had floundered around like four fillets of wet halibut, the soon-to-be tourists were 20 points up and out of sight.
Yet even against a Barbarians side as below-par as this one, England's performance level dropped like a stone after the interval, to the extent that Olly Barkley found himself aiming for the sticks with the last kick of the match, amid a cacophony of discontent from all corners of the stadium. The paying public expected to see a victory for the "serious" team, and see it they did. What they did not expect to witness was the national team running down the clock in desperation.
The early tries that fell to James Haskell and Shontayne Hape could both be laid at the door of an embarrassingly off-colour Fritz, who looked approximately a thousandth of the player he had appeared while helping Toulouse to a record-breaking fourth Heineken Cup victory in Paris eight days previously. The follow-up score awarded to Ben Foden was down to one of Fritz's countrymen, the referee Jérôme Garces. At this stage, England were in no obvious need of a leg-up from anyone, but Garces somehow missed Steve Thompson's impersonation of a gridiron quarterback as the hooker threw the most forward of forward passes in the build-up.
With Mark Cueto, among the most dependable of the current red-rose generation, and the freshly selected Gloucester lock Dave Attwood catching the eye, a 50-point canter was very much on the cards.
But they faded, along with everyone else. Amid half-hearted Mexican waves and desultory choruses of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", England proceeded to construct a sow's ear from a silk purse, conceding possession, territory and tries in the most alarming of manners. David Smith, an unusually strong wing from New Zealand, and Census Johnston, a ridiculously strong prop from Samoa, both crossed, transforming a 32-7 deficit into something much more intriguing.
When Sackey took advantage of some high-class work from Cedric Heymans to bag his second try late on, England found themselves praying for close of play. They were a sorry sight: disorganised, lumpen and depressingly short of ideas, they looked increasingly helpless against a ragbag a collection of demob-happy bar-room carousers. The final whistle saved them, which just about said it all.
England: Tries Haskell, Hape, Foden, Tindall; Conversions Hodgson 2, Barkley; Penalties Hodgson 2, Barkley. Barbarians: Tries Sackey, D Smith, Johnston, Sackey; Conversions Elissalde 3.
England: B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), S Hape (Bath), D Strettle (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), D Care (Harlequins); J
Golding (Newcastle), S Thompson (Brive), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), D Attwood (Gloucester), T Palmer
(Stade Francais), J Haskell (Stade Francais), S Armitage (London Irish), N Easter (Harlequins, capt).
Replacements: O Barkley (Bath) for Hodgson 35; T Payne (Wasps) for Golding 45; D Ward-Smith (Wasps) for Attwood 52; L Mears (Bath) for Thompson 56; M Tait (Sale) for Hape 62; J Worsley (Wasps) for Armitage 71; J Simpson (Wasps) for Strettle 78.
Barbarians: P Warwick (Munster); P Sackey (Wasps), C Laulala (Cardiff Blues), F Fritz (Toulouse), C Heymans (Toulouse); J-B Elissalde (Toulouse), B Kelleher (Toulouse); R Roncero (Stade Francais), B August (Biarritz), J White (Leicester), R Skeate (Toulon), B Kay (Leicester), R So'oialo (Wellington), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), X Rush (Cardiff Blues, capt).
Replacements: J Thion (Biarritz) for Skeate 42; C Johnston (Toulouse) for White 49; G Smith (unattached) for Kay 49; D Smith (Wellington) for Warwick 52; F Estebanez (Brive) for Fritz 52; P Mignoni (Toulon) for Kelleher 65; K Owens (Scarlets) for August 76.
Referee J Garces (France).