Perfectionist who regards self-doubt as enemy force

The Interview - Olly Barkley: Don't call Bath's No 10 arrogant. And don't brand him a Wilkinson clone. Nick Townsend meets a single-minded, doubly determined international
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The Independent Online

How do you follow the most glamorous "10" since Bo Derek first emerged out of the waves into the vision of a lustful Dudley Moore? The first thing to acknowledge is that, though there may be comparisons in his obsessional approach, and in his cradling of the arms before an attempt at goal, with the man who provoked a national state of euphoria six months ago, Olly Barkley is not Jonny Junior.

The Bath fly-half eschews the notion that he is a mere clone of England's sidelined icon. What he will concede, however, is that, metaphorically, it was a voluminous shirt he was asked to fill as he emerged for what transpired to be a defining moment: that Six Nations game against Wales in March: "There was a lot of pressure anyway, with the team having lost against Ireland," recalls the Hammersmith-born, Cornwall-raised 22-year-old. "It was my first senior international start, the conditions were awful, and now I was playing in probably the most documented jersey in world rugby. But the way I looked at it, I was in that team to do that jersey justice, and I was determined not to allow anyone to pull it off me."

The irony, of course, was that it was actually Sir Clive Woodward who, having lauded him, did precisely that. It was in the midst of an extraordinary few days. In the week leading up to the match, Barkley had been informed that he would not be required. Paul Grayson was originally named to deputise for Wilkinson, only then to stand down because of injury. Barkley took full advantage. After a performance in which he compiled 16 points with the boot, he was pronounced man of the match by Woodward - then promptly dropped again from the squad for the finale against France. Such are the vagaries of Woodie's World. In the event, providence again intervened. Grayson was still unfit, and Barkley was invited back.

One can think of characters in the 11-man code who would have thrown the lot out of the pram, and turned the contraption over, if confronted by such a sequence of events. For Barkley, it was, well, like a protester's powder off a Prime Minister's back. "I was very disappointed I wasn't included [initially against France]. Though I could understand his [Woodward's] reasoning, it doesn't mean I was particularly happy with it. But I stayed very positive. To play was fantastic. To lose was very disappointing."

Assimilation into any England squad can prove vexatious for any young performer, whatever his talent. Some can become overawed by those surrounding them. Barkley has never betrayed such characteristics. "Guys like Lawrence [Dallaglio] command a lot of respect because of what they've achieved. But at the end of the day, I play fly-half, and if that guy's in my way I tell him to get the f*** out of it. And yes, I have said things like that. It's only afterwards that you think, 'Oh, shit'."

The epitome of authority and composure on the pitch, Barkley attributes those qualities to his parents, John and Jude. "Also, growing up in Cornwall, it's quite a laid-back way of life and that's helped me," he says. "I'd like to be a world-class 10 one day, and you can't have those kind of aspirations unless you're mentally quite cool, with a focused head on you."

Barkley is clad in cut-offs, loose top, and flip-flops when we meet after training. He could be a beach bum. It is a guise he will revert to on a weekend visit home to the West Country. Such brief relaxation is the prelude to a frenetic period, during which he represents Bath in the Zurich Premier-ship Final next Saturday, is likely to secure his sixth appearance for England, against the Barbarians at Twickenham the following Sunday, and then departs for England's summer tour of Australasia, where they meet New Zealand, twice, and Australia.

"It's just fantastic to go to places like that, where rugby just oozes from people's every pore," Barkley enthuses. "I've visualised all three games already. I find the more you do that, the less the shock to the system. Following the World Cup success, it does ask a lot of the individuals that follow them down there. You come in and think, 'This England team have set world-class standards, now I've got to measure up to them'."

Visualisation techniques are an important part of his pre-match repertoire. He works closely with England's specialist coach Dave Alred on mental preparation for goal-kicking. "On the pitch I border almost on arrogance sometimes," Barkley explains. "That's not because I'm like that as a person. If ever I had been, my mum and dad would have kicked it out of me, I'm sure. It's just that I regard any self-doubt as a destructive force."

Barkley did not watch the World Cup final live. He was on the way to the Rec to prepare for a club fixture against Harlequins. Did the triumph in Sydney leave him elated? "Not really, no," he says, "because I wasn't involved. I was really happy for the England team, particularly our guys - Catty [Mike Catt], Balsh [Iain Balshaw] and Tinds [Mike Tindall] - but I just had to concentrate on the club game. We had built up a good head of steam in the Premiership, and it was important to continue that."

It conveys much about a psyche which is similar to Wilkinson's in its almost monomaniacal sense of purpose. Though Barkley does not attempt to replicate the Golden One, the dedication to his career and aversion to self-publicity is uncannily similar. "I don't enjoy a lot of attention," he says. "I even get embarrassed if people talk about me in the queue at the supermarket."

You warn him that as an eligible international sportsman (he parted amicably from his long-time New Zealand girlfriend, Beki, over a year ago), fame may just embrace him without his consent. "I'd never wish that upon myself," he says. "In that way, I'm like Jonny. He's got to where he is because he's been solely focused on rugby and he hasn't let distractions get to him."

There must be temptations, though? He grins knowingly. "If you're looking for it, you can definitely find it. But I'm very happy being on my own at the moment. My social life consists mainly of being out with the boys [his Bath team-mates] on a Saturday night." He acknowledges a raised eyebrow. "I don't mean you should go out and get absolutely trolleyed. You just train, eat and sleep during the week, so I believe you need some sort of release otherwise you'd go nuts. And Sunday is my 'shit food' day, when I have things like bangers and mash. That's my reward for being disciplined during the week."

The concept of defeat, of being a mere runner-up, is anathema to him. It helps explain why, as a schoolboy left-winger, he was not seduced by overtures from professional football clubs; Plymouth Argyle offered him a trial and Arsenal scouts pursued him. "I don't think I was good enough to be a top-class Premiership player. Second best wasn't good enough for me. It was the same at school when I was asked to enter all the athletics events. If I didn't think I would win one, I wouldn't do it. I'd say I'd got a bad hammy, whatever."

It was a PE teacher at his Wadebridge school who first awoke a dormant interest in rugby. "Yeah, bribed, more like," says Barkley, with a wry laugh. "He told me, 'If you don't play rugby, you can't play football'. That's the only reason I started. I remember the 1991 World Cup final. Dad, who's always loved rugby, was inside the house shouting at the screen. I was outside, kicking a football round the garden. It wasn't until the 1995 World Cup that the All Blacks' dominance really excited me. The only player I've ever looked up to is Carlos Spencer. It's fantastic that I may have the opportunity to play against him."

Barkley moved on to a rugby hothouse, Colston's School in Bristol, and in his final year accepted a contract from Bath, who agreed to allow him a "gap" year. He spent it backpacking in New Zealand. Barkley had already been selected by Woodward for a tour of North America the following June, 2001, despite then not even having played for Bath. "It was weird. I remember turning up at Pennyhill Park, and all these guys were asking, 'Who are you, anyway?' "

They soon discovered why he was a chosen one. Barkley was rewarded with his first full cap against the United States. He had to wait nearly three years for his second, in Rome this year, but meanwhile his stock in club rugby became so enhanced that Saracens offered him substantially more than he receives at Bath. He rejected the London club. "It was a 'Jeez!' kind of moment, but I've chosen to stay with a good coaching set-up and excellent players," says the players' Young Player of the Year.

That decision makes the Premiership final against Wasps an even more significant occasion. "It's different from an England game, because it's much more emotional," he says. "You're playing with people you sweat with every day, and get angry with for dropping passes. It's very special. I haven't experienced that with England yet, though I'm sure it was a similar feeling for the guys who won the World Cup. I'd love to experience that one day."

You suspect he will, but if so just don't refer to him as Jonny Junior. Just plain Oliver, the original article. There may be a few more twists, so to speak, in this story first.

BIOGRAPHY: Olly Barkley

Born: 28 November 1981 in London.

Height: 5ft 10in.

Weight: 14st 3lb.

International career: England - 5 caps (27 points). Debut: v USA, 16 June 2001 (won 48-19). Also: v Italy (50-9), v Ireland (13-19), v Wales (31-21), v France (21-24), 2004 Six Nations.

Club career: Bath - 57 Zurich Premiership appearances (773 points).

Also: Professional Rugby Association's Young Player of the Year 2003-04. Won two Daily Mail Cups with Colston's Collegiate School. In 2003 he was part of the England A squad who won the Churchill Cup in Canada and toured to Japan. Scored 22 points, including two tries, against a Japan Select XV in Tokyo.

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