There were moments here yesterday when some of English rugby's piano players, all too often buried beneath legions of piano shifters, came up with a tasty tune or two. James Simpson-Daniel's sidestepping number down the right, composed and orchestrated by his Gloucester clubmate, Luke Narraway, was as sweet as anything produced on the old cabbage patch all season, and as it gave this unfamiliar England combination a 24-7 advantage, there was every reason to expect more of the same.
So what happened? For one thing, Seru Rabeni happened. Whatever the grand Fijian centre does with his time these days, he does not spend it cuddling kittens and helping old ladies across the road. A player steeped in the South Seas rugby tradition, he smashed into his opponents with extreme prejudice from the moment he took the field midway through the third quarter, and by the time he had finished smashing them, the Barbarians were handily placed to win the game. Which they duly did with a late try from the uncapped Edinburgh wing Tim Visser, who capitalised on some open-field brilliance from two more southern hemisphere types, Joe Tekori of Samoa and Joe van Niekerk of South Africa.
Visser, a Dutch-born back who recently committed his international future to Scotland when he might have chosen England instead, had already registered a presence on the scoreboard 10 minutes into the second half, beating Simpson-Daniel to a perfectly weighted cross-kick from the ever-inventive Frédéric Michalak and touching down at the left flag. This was the very last thing Simpson-Daniel needed, considering the importance of these proceedings to his hopes of forcing a place in England's training squad for the forthcoming World Cup in All-Black country.
Watching from the stands was Martin Johnson, the national manager, who has well-documented suspicions about vertically-challenged players who also struggle in the pounds and ounces department. Had Simpson-Daniel carved up the Baa-Baas' defence after the interval in the way he did before it, he would have done his chances a power of good. Unfortunately, Visser's intervention can only have confirmed Johnson in his sizeism.
Of the other live contenders for a training squad slot – we need not include the unusually substantial Bath back Matt Banahan in this category, for he already has a seat on the plane to New Zealand – only Narraway made a serious case for himself. Johnson is likely to reject his claims, but only a blind man could fail to appreciate the seven-a-side specialist's footballing skills. What was more, he mixed it with the big boys in black-and-white hoops when the going got tough, as was always likely given the physical make-up of the invitation side. If Visser is no midget and Mathieu Bastareaud is in no way normal, Rabeni is something else again when he "has it on him", as the saying goes.
Early tries from the inexperienced Henry Trinder and the more weather-beaten Ugo Monye set a decent early tone, despite Michalak's flirtation with the sublime in creating a score for Benoît Baby, and when Simpson-Daniel maximised the good work of his captain on 27 minutes, a red-rose victory was on the cards. Even though Michalak intercepted Paul Hodgson's pass to score on the stroke of the turnaround, there were still possibilities for Narraway and company.
But they were already on the painful end of a strong Baa-Baas' scrummaging effort, spearheaded by the Italian loose-head prop Salvatore Perugini, and with the likes of Rabeni and Tekori stampeding around the place, England's interval lead of 24-14 became a 31-24 deficit inside 65 minutes. Charlie Hodgson's penalty put them back within range and when Tom Johnson, one of the forwards at the heart of Exeter's excellent debut season in the Premiership, found his way across the line as Banahan was being treated for a nasty shin injury on the other side of the field, the balance of the argument tilted again.
Yet the men of Barbaria, wherever that is, were never less than dangerous, and it was no great surprise when Tekori made big ground off another driving scrum and sent Van Niekerk racing into the wide blue yonder – a move that ended in Visser's deciding score, converted by Ruan Pienaar.
England XV: Tries Trinder, Monye, Simpson-Daniel, Johnson; Conversions:C Hodgson 3; Penalties C Hodgson 2. Barbarians: Tries Visser 2, Baby, Michalak, Smith, Van Niekerk; Conversions Michalak 3, Pienaar.
England XV: M Brown (Harlequins); J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), H Trinder (Gloucester), M Banahan (Bath), U Monye (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), P Hodgson (London Irish); J Marler (Harlequins), D Paice (London Irish), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), G Kitchener (Worcester), D Attwood (Gloucester), T Johnson (Exeter), C Fearns (Sale), L Narraway (Gloucester, capt).
Replacements: J Turner-Hall (Harlequins) for Monye 44; J Gaskell (Sale) for Fearns 54; K Brookes (Newcastle) for Doran-Jones 61; J Gibson (London Irish) for Kitchener 61; M Young (Newcastle) for P Hodgson 61; Doran-Jones for Marler 69; S Myler (Northampton) for Brown 74.
Barbarians: N Jeanjean (Brive and France); P Sackey (Toulon and England), B Baby (Clermont Auvergne and France), M Bastareaud (Stade Français and France), T Visser (Edinburgh); F Michalak (Toulouse and France), R Pienaar (Ulster and South Africa); S Perugini (Aironi and Italy), L Ghiraldini (Treviso and Italy), D Kubriashvili (Toulon and Georgia), E Lund (Biarritz and Norway), Q Geldenhuys (Aironi and Italy), J Van Niekerk (Toulon and South Africa), G Smith (Toulon and Australia), S Parisse (Stade Français and Italy, capt).
Replacements: S Tillous-Borde (Castres and France) for Michalak 41-50 and 69; S Bruno (Toulon and France) for Ghiraldini 51; C Hayman (Toulon and New Zealand) for Kubriashvili 51; S Rabeni (La Rochelle and Fiji) for Baby 51; J Tekori (Castres and Fiji) for Geldenhuys 58; M Williams (Cardiff Blues and Wales) for Smith 73; W Mason (Toulon and Hull KR) for Sackey 73.
Referee C Berdos (France).