Matt Giteau and Will Genia, two of the scarier talents in world rugby, will not be playing for the Australian Barbarians at the seductively named Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford today. That's the good news for England. The bad news is that they are in the running to start the second Test this weekend, and if the Wallaby coach Robbie Deans decides his two razor-sharp decision-makers are fit enough to play the full 80 minutes, the tourists might consider giving the match a miss and spend Saturday evening jumping off Sydney Harbour Bridge. It amounts to suicide either way.
When the players return from this latest God-forsaken visit to the southern hemisphere, which, as per usual, has a "great trip, shame about the rugby" feel to it, they can look forward to the next of Martin Johnson's elite player squad announcements. Thirty-two individuals will be named, and as there are 44 in this current group – not to mention the likes of Steve Borthwick, Andrew Sheridan and Riki Flutey, none of whom have travelled – there will be some heavy fallers. Will, for instance, the Bath centre Olly Barkley make the cut?
Barkley has been the most productive playmaking No 12 in English rugby since returning from the broken leg that incapacitated him for the first half of the Premiership campaign, and in terms of his skill-set – he can run, kick and pass, which puts him in the "all mod cons" category – he is miles ahead of most of his rivals. This is why Bath pick him ahead of the bigger but more limited Shontayne Hape. And England? They pick Hape ahead of Barkley. At least, they did for last weekend's Test in Perth, about which the least said the better.
Has the penny dropped with the national selectors? Apparently not. Barkley starts today for the second midweek game running, which suggests he will watch the second Test from the stand, as he did the first one. If this does not necessarily signify Hape's survival in the senior side – there is much talk of a bloke by the name of Wilkinson sharing the inside-back duties with Toby Flood on Saturday – it certainly indicates that this particular coaching team have made up their minds that Barkley cannot tackle, and is therefore beyond the pale.
"I play the way I play," the 28-year-old midfielder said yesterday. "I won't change, although I'll try to get better, as I always do. I think I bring something different to the midfield, but it's up to the coaches whether or not they pick me. There's this perception that I don't like defending, but it's wrong. I practise it and I enjoy it. Maybe it's just that I'm not as big as the next guy."
Without him in Perth, England's defence was just about as porous, not to say poor, as defences get. As Barkley himself said: "We missed 30-odd tackles, which is a number a team would perhaps expect over four or five matches, not one."
Unfortunately, their attacking game, which would surely have benefited from his presence, was every bit as dire. While Johnson, the manager, furrows his brow whenever someone dares suggest that the rugby his team plays is almost entirely free of freedom or creative self-expression – "What does that actually mean?" he asked yesterday – such language does not bemuse or discomfit Barkley.
"Australia always seem to have a ball-player in there at 12," he commented. "Their centres know how to play flat, how to play deep, how to get round teams. I can't say whether their running moves are planned on the training field, but knowing Richard Graham [the Wallaby attack coach] from his time at Bath, I'd say that sort of rugby is in their genes. They have this expansive, expressive culture and it makes them very effective."
Whether or not Barkley finds a place in Johnson's 32 next month – a squad certain to be selected with a steady eye on next year's World Cup in New Zealand – may well depend on his performance in Gosford, where he joins Charlie Hodgson and Dominic Waldouck in a midfield long on footballing ability but short on inches, pounds and ounces. He understands what is at stake, as do others named for a game they would rather have avoided.
"The days of being nailed on in the England squad have gone," said James Haskell, who starts at No 8 today. "We're all expendable. If you don't seize the opportunities you're given you disappear. That has to be the greatest fear when EPS [Elite Player Squad] announcements are imminent – that you won't wear the shirt again."
It will be surprising indeed if Haskell is among the losers next month, but if England's second-string fail to register a victory over a Barbarians side marginally weaker than the one that held them to a draw a week ago, the ramifications could be both widespread and painful.
England team to play the Australian Barbarians in Gosford; kick-off 10.35am BST:
D Armitage (London Irish); D Strettle (Harlequins), D Waldouck (Wasps), O Barkley (Bath), M Banahan (Bath); C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks); J Golding (Newcastle), L Mears (Bath), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), D Attwood (Gloucester), D Ward-Smith (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps, capt), S Armitage (London Irish), J Haskell (Stade Francais).
Replacements: R Webber (Wasps), D Flatman (Bath), C Robshaw (Harlequins), P Dowson (Northampton), P Hodgson (London Irish), S Geraghty (Northampton), M Tait (Sale Sharks).