Eyeball victim Brad Barritt sees his England future more clearly now

Fiji game gives Saracens centre the chance to confirm his role as Lancaster's Mr Reliable

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

Bert Trautmann

Manchester City's goalkeeper played the last 15 minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final with a broken neck.

Manteo Mitchell

The US sprinter finished his 4x400m relay leg at the 2012 Olympics despite hearing his left fibula snap.

Paul Wood

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.

Twickenham teams

England

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.

Fiji

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.

News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
people

Tennis star is set to marry his long-term girlfriend, Kim Sears

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?