It happened a few minutes into the second half of England’s opening contest with the Springboks in Durban last summer. The South African “cattle”, as they were famously christened by the red-rose forwards coach Graham Rowntree, were stampeding towards the tourists with such ferocity that it seemed Mother Nature herself had been whipped into a storm of green and gold. Brad Barritt was among the first to see the trouble ahead. It would be the last thing he saw clearly for quite a while.
As the Saracens centre slammed into his opposite number Frans Steyn, he was joined in the tackle his clubmate and fellow midfielder Owen Farrell, whose finger caught Barritt, 26, in the face and left him with a lacerated eyeball, which disconnected itself from the socket for good measure. Half blinded – the cut, just below the left pupil, was three centimetres in length - the victim hauled himself to his feet, reclaimed his position in the defensive line and clattered another couple of Bokke runners before being left in a heap on the floor. It may have been the most mind-bogglingly heroic act of rugby’s professional era.
When Barritt reflects on those horrible few seconds at King’s Park, what thoughts spring to mind? “To begin with,” he replies, “I think Owen should have his fingernails cut. I won’t lie: it was a scary moment. I couldn’t see a thing out of my eye, but I didn’t know what had happened until play stopped and the doctor appeared. He opened the eye, which was tight shut, and that was when the blood came dribbling out. Initially, I hoped it wasn’t too bad, but then I was examined by Phil Pask (the England physiotherapist) and I saw the look on his face – through my good eye, of course. It was then that I said to myself: ‘Right Brad, we may have an issue here.’”
There was indeed an issue. Barritt, born and raised in Durban and just about the most motivated of England’s players before the Test for obvious reasons, was taken through all-too-familiar streets to the nearest hospital, where treatment was a little slow in materialising because two people with gunshot wounds had just arrived in the emergency department. “It turned out to be quite a long evening, understandably enough,” he says.
By playing on with an injury of such seriousness, he put his sporting career at risk. He may not have known it at the time, but openly acknowledges it now. “It could have gone badly,” he admits, “but it’s what you do in those circumstances, isn’t it? You’re there to sacrifice yourself for the team, especially when you’re under the pump.” This goes to the heart of Barritt’s attitude, as did his determination to recover in time for the third and final Test in Port Elizabeth a fortnight after the King’s Park trauma – a game in which he left the bench twice to spend almost half an hour tackling yet more Springboks. It was, and remains, a masterpiece of resilience.
Barritt is back in the starting line-up for this afternoon’s meeting with Fiji, where he is likely to see far more of the gruesome twosome, Sireli Naqelevuki and the equally powerful Vereniki Goneva, than normal flesh and blood could stand. Whether Stuart Lancaster would have recalled him had the London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph been fit, only the head coach can say – and he isn’t saying, because he has no use for hypotheticals. This much is certain, though: Barritt’s presence is reassuring for Lancaster, for whom he has become a go-to man since breaking into Test rugby at the start of last season’s Six Nations.
Whenever England have found themselves in difficulties since that opening championship match against Scotland at Murrayfield, it is Barritt who has stood up to be counted. If the captain Chris Robshaw is the standard-bearer of the red-rose pack, the 26-year-old from the shores of the Indian Ocean performs the same role in the back division. Steve Borthwick, his skipper at Saracens and a man who knows what it is to lead at international level, once described him as “serious-minded and utterly reliable” – quite an accolade, coming from a man who prizes seriousness and reliability above all other rugby virtues.
Yet Barritt knows better than anyone that he needs to broaden his game if he is to withstand the challenges of rivals hell-bent on establishing themselves as first-choice midfielders in good time for the home World Cup in 2015. These include his partner Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, who might well have worn the No 12 shirt this afternoon had Joseph been fit to play at outside centre, and the fast-developing Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester.
“It’s not my place to comment on other players,” he says. “Speaking personally, I feel I’ve been playing well at club level. Certainly, I’m high on confidence,” he says. So he should be: Barritt’s recent displays for Saracens have been excellent, not least in the Heineken Cup. Yet it remains the case that his position is the most debated, the most agonised over, of any in the team. If he has heard the “where’s the new Will Greenwood?” question once, he has heard it a hundred times.
“If we could start looking beyond the history, it might help,” he says. “In reality, the midfield is not about one position, any more than the front row is about one position. It’s a unit thing. It’s about each player in that unit performing unselfishly for the good of the combination, and of the team as a whole. The more times I play alongside Manu, the more our relationship will develop. He’s an instinctive player as well as a powerful one and he does unusual things, but I’m beginning to read him.
“Does that mean I feel comfortable in the England side? I don’t believe a player should ever allow himself to feel comfortable, because international rugby is not a comfortable place. I think it’s better to approach each game knowing you have to impress to hold your position. That’s certainly my attitude.”
Lancaster believes Barritt has a wide-ranging skill, but for much of his seven-cap career, the rugby produced by the man from Natal has been more a thing of force than of beauty. But today, against an under-prepared band of Fijians, he has an opportunity to express himself in poetry as well as prose. If he comes up with the right lines, they will stick in the coach’s memory.
Sport's other horror heroes
Manchester City's goalkeeper played the last 15 minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck.
The US sprinter finished his 4x400m relay leg at the 2012 Olympics despite hearing his left fibula snap.
The Warrington Wolves prop completed this year's Challenge Cup final despite an injury which led to a testicle being removed.
Wayne 'Buck' Shelford
The All Black played with stitches after his scrotum was badly ripped in a ruck against France in 1986.
15 A Goode, 14 C Sharples, 13 M Tuilagi, 12 B Barritt, 11 U Monye, 10 T Flood, 9 D Care; 1 J Marler, 2 T Youngs, 3 D Cole, 4 G Parling, 5 T Palmer, 6 T Johnson, 7 C Robshaw (capt), 8 T Waldron.
15 S Koniferedi, 14 S Wara, 13 V Goneva, 12 S Naq-elevuki, 11 W Votu, 10 M Talebula, 9 N Matawalu; 1 R Makutu, 2 V Veikoso, 3 D Manu (capt), 4 L Nakawara, 5 A Ratun-iyarawa, 6 A Naikatani, 7 M Ravulo, 8 A Qera.