Argue all you like about the respective merits of Olly Barkley and Alex King; feel free to dip a toe in the storm-tossed seas of England's second-row selection and compare the claims of Steve Borthwick, Danny Grewcock and Simon Shaw. But do not, on any account, lose sight of the burning issue crackling away beneath the Six Nations Championship as the first round of matches draws near. It concerns a little-known flanker from the wilds of Connacht by the name of Jonny O'Connor and the apparent determination of the Irish coaches to ensure he remains as anonymous as possible. Quite frankly, the situation stinks to high heaven.
O'Connor is a Fergus Slattery for the new century; fast, energetic, recklessly courageous. He can break a defensive line with ball in hand, while remaining resolutely unbreakable when the boot is on the other foot. He can make 20 tackles a match while supporting long-range attacks like Josh Kronfeld on heat; he is in the Neil Back league as a scavenger; he can soak up punishment measuring 10.5 on the Peter Winterbottom Scale and still come back for more. Even at this early stage, in his uncapped state, he is a leading candidate for the Lions' back row in New Zealand next year. Yet he is not - repeat, not - even close to Ireland's squad for the match with France in Paris this weekend. Weird.
Apparently, O'Connor plays for the wrong club under the wrong coach. Most rugby folk would consider Wasps to be the right club - they are, after all, the best side in England and can count themselves among the top three in Europe - and Warren Gatland absolutely the right coach, given his record of roll-over success stretching back more than a year. But the union game moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform. Despite the hard evidence in support of O'Connor's case, the Irish are in no hurry to select anyone from the reigning English champions.
"It probably doesn't help that Jonny is playing for Wasps, and I think this has more to do with the person coaching Wasps than with the player himself," said Gatland, shining an intriguing half-light on the personality politics of the sport at international level. Gatland coached Ireland until late 2001, when he lost his job to Eddie O'Sullivan, and his relationship with the Lansdowne Road hierarchy is far from cosy. He would happily recommend O'Connor if O'Sullivan took the trouble to phone and ask, but he has not heard from his successor. The way Gatland sees it, the silence amounts to a snub.
"There has not been one iota of interest in Jonny that I'm aware of," he continued. "I had him on the fringes of the squad towards the end of my stay in Ireland, and people like Keith Wood were saying 'Pick him, pick him'. It was obvious that he had great gifts, that he had the potential to go a long way at Test level.
"He was beginning to stagnate over there, so he came to the Premiership in search of experience. He's found it. He's our man of the match almost on a weekly basis, and would do a fantastic job for his country. I just hope the situation doesn't stand in his way, and that he gets his opportunity."
Bath, defending an 11-month unbeaten record at the Recreation Ground, secured more than enough posession in the second half of Saturday's contest to extend their lead at the top of the Premiership, but ran into a Wasps defence constructed on the twin pillars of pride and parsimony.
There were grand acts of individual defiance by Lawrence Dallaglio and Josh Lewsey, by Paul Volley and Rob Howley; at the very death, Peter Richards was kicked to kingdom come as the Bath forwards piled into a ruck in the shadow of the Wasps posts. But O'Connor was the centrepiece. While there was breath in his body, the barricade would hold firm.
Had Barkley found a way of breaking down the Londoners, he would have played his way into the England side for this weekend's game with Italy. As it turned out, he did not do nearly enough to clarify the position surrounding the vacancy at outside-half. Barkley was not helped by his coaches, who chose to start him at inside-centre while ignoring the availability of Mike Catt. He was not helped by the weather, either; he kicked one pearl of a penalty into the wind during a first half dominated by the visitors, but missed twice after the break. He also contrived to float the ball to Tom Voyce, the Wasps left wing, when Bath found themselves with a rare overlap down the right.
King, meanwhile, produced the one killer pass of the afternoon - a sublime delivery off his right hand that enabled Voyce to create a try for the excellent Mark van Gisbergen. Unfortunately, thigh problems prevented King from proving himself as a marksman capable of dealing with difficult meteorological conditions. As Paul Grayson, the other candidate for the Jonny Wilkinson role at Stadio Flaminio, did not play for Northampton at the weekend, the picture is as blurred as ever.
There was, however, some useful intelligence on the other positional quandary facing the England coaches, and it was provided by Danny Grewcock. The Bath lock was in characteristically forthright mood - a dig here, a prod there, a smack in the teeth somewhere else - and while his colleague, Steve Borthwick, finished like a train and his direct opponent, Simon Shaw, showed some neat footballing touches in the wide open prairies, Grewcock's close-quarter brutishness marked him out as the obvious replacement for Martin Johnson.
If that turns out to be the case, Shaw will be distraught. "I know plenty of international teams around the world who smile to themselves every time England name a team without Simon in it," said Gatland, in support of his man. But in the list of second rows to be avoided at all costs, a pumped-up Grewcock - mad, bad and dangerous to know - must be at least one place higher.
Bath: Penalties: Barkley 2. Wasps: Try: Van Gisbergen. Conversion: Van Gisbergen. Penalty: Van Gisbergen.
Bath: I Balshaw; W Human, A Higgins, O Barkley, S Danielli; C Malone (K Maggs, 46), M Wood; D Flatman, J Humphreys (L Mears, 54), D Bell (M Stevens, 45), S Borthwick, D Grewcock (capt), A Beattie, M Lipman, I Fea'unati.
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen (J Rudd, 79); J Lewsey, F Waters, M Denney, T Voyce; A King, R Howley (P Richards, 75); C Dowd, T Leota (B Gotting, 50), W Green, S Shaw, M Purdy, P Volley, J O'Connor, L Dallaglio (capt).
Referee: C White (Gloucestershire).Reuse content