Brian Ashton, the England coach, has not been infallible this season – his gamble on Iain Balshaw appeared to backfire until Danny Cipriani went moth-like to the bright lights – and he may well have got it wrong over the case of Olly Barkley. The Bath stand-off got Ashton off the hook in those early fraught games in the World Cup when Jonny Wilkinson was injured, yet when it came to the Six Nations, Barkley was cast aside.
The Red Rose brigade had hoped that a pending charge against the player of actual bodily harm would be dropped. It wasn't, and Barkley appears at Aylesbury Crown Court on 4 April. What he needed above all was to carry on playing.
"On the morning the England squad was announced, Brian rang me to explain why I'd been dropped," Barkley says. "He didn't feel he wanted a court case hanging over my head while the Six Nations was on. He couldn't justify it to himself.
"I told him I didn't think it would compromise my rugby. He said he'd leave a place open for me when everything was done and dusted. I was upset, I wanted to be involved, but there was no point stamping my feet. Life's too short and too hard."
Barkley's response in the past few months has been extraordinary, for club if not country. Not only has he been on top of his game for Bath (he was named Guinness Premiership player of the month for February), he has done so while multi-tasking. He is pleading not guilty to the charge of ABH, which arose from an incident involving a Sky television producer at the wedding reception of the former Bath and England full-back Matt Perry in Buckinghamshire last year.
In between training and playing, Barkley has been preparing his defence. He has also spent six months renovating his house in Bath, while living with clubmate David Flatman. Oh, and by the way he decided to leave his beloved Bath for Gloucester, a seismic shift in West Country rugby.
"It's been a turbulent few months," Barkley, 26, said, "a very tough time, but I haven't been on my knees crying on the carpet. I've had great support from family and friends. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I think I've been dealing with it pretty well. It's character-building. These things are sent to try us, and you find out what kind of person you are.
"Playing rugby has been a relief. Normally I'm very intense about it, but I've been thinking about other things." The court case, of course, plus his move from the Rec to Kingsholm. "I've been at Bath for eight years and it's been fantastic. I love the city, the people and the club, but I'm halfway through my career, and if I signed another contract I'd probably never leave. I didn't want to finish wondering what might have happened had I given it a shot somewhere else. No what-ifs. It sounds cheesy, but I want to take my career to another level."
Barkley decided to move after meeting the Gloucester coach, Dean Ryan. "They have a long-term plan, a clear idea of building a squad that can win things consistently. It's a new challenge with new coaches, and Gloucester can make me a better player. I needed a kick up the arse."
Ryan can also impress recruits with the continuing development of Kingsholm, where the capacity will rise to 22,000, generating greater revenue. Bath want to expand the Rec (capacity 10,500) but it is not theirs to develop. "It's the most beautiful setting," Barkley said, "but every time the club get a green light they're met with an appeal. They've got to sort it out."
Barkley has 21 caps – the first earned against the USA in San Francisco when he was 19 and yet to make a senior appearance for Bath. Born in London, raised in Cornwall, he was spotted by Ashton and Andy Robinson playing for Colston's School in Bristol. With more than 1,500 points, he is the second-highest points-scorer in Bath's history.
"I feel I'm letting people down by leaving. Bath did everything they could to keep me. They offered me more money, but that wasn't the issue. I'm looking forward to going out on a high and perhaps this year we can actually bloody win something."
With Steve Borthwick, who had been the club captain, departing for Saracens at the end of the season and Barkley defecting to Gloucester, Bath have suffered a considerable double blow, at a time when they are challenging hard for the Premiership.
"I am surprised when you consider how far the team has come in the last 18 months," said Steve Meehan, Bath's coach. "Not only that but the style of rugby we are playing and how involved Olly has been in its evolution. I was amazed that England didn't include him in the Six Nations. He has shown real strength of character in performing as he has."Reuse content