Centre of attention
Olly Barkley's sparkling return from injury should see him called up for England, says Gail Davis.
Last Updated: 07/05/10 9:48am
Sport is all about timing and Bath seem to have got it spot on. So too their centre Olly Barkley, whose return from injury and form should see him included in England's 44-man squad to tour Australia and New Zealand.
Only a few months ago Barkley, almost a forgotten man after an ill-fated season at Gloucester, would have found playing any rugby unimaginable. An eight-week lay-off after suffering from a fractured fibula turned into an eight-month injury hell.
"The low point came when I slipped on my crutches and two 80-year-old ladies had to help me up," said Barkley, which sums up what a hard time it has been for him. But the light has come flooding back in recent weeks, so bright you'd have needed your sunglasses. In the space of a week Barkley helped steer Bath to wins against Sale and Northampton. That gave the club a shot at Wasps and the top four, which they took with both hands.
If you could put everything you'd want from a 12, you'd probably come up with a performance like the one Barkley gave at Twickenham. He says his sharpness and speed isn't quite back after his long lay-off but his enthusiasm and love of the game is back since his return to Bath, and that's more than filling the gap in the meantime. Barkley's only just got going and he's desperate for his season not to come to an end.
Wasps are doing their best to keep spirits up after a dreadful two weeks. They are still in with a chance of making the top four but they'll have to go to Newcastle and win, while hoping Bath fail to beat Leeds. In reality they are facing a second season without silverware, this from a team that only a few years ago were winning almost every trophy going.
The closeness of the race for the top four this season is only going to get more competitive next year and with a host of experienced players leaving - even 22-year-old Danny Cipriani has been at the club seven years - it's going to be difficult to fill the void.
After Wasps it was off to the see the other team that only a few weeks ago looked odds on to claim that final playoff spot - London Irish. Toby Booth has already begun the post-mortem on their season. "The difference is Wasps were outplayed in the past few weeks, we shot ourselves in the foot," said the Exiles head coach.
Unfortunately for London Irish the defeat against Leeds wasn't the only time it's happened this season. The home game against the Scarlets in the Heineken Cup - the week after beating Leinster away - was another huge turning point in a campaign that promised so much.
Booth talked at the beginning of the season about the switch from being the underdog to expectant favourites and on the evidence of those two games there's still work to do. Before games such as Leeds they talked about not being complacent - London Irish smashed Andy Key and Neil Back's side 56-7 at Headingley - but the message just didn't seem to get through.
If the unexpected does happen and Bath and Wasps slip up a win against Northampton it would give London Irish fourth spot, which would be a fitting end to an 18-year playing career that has seen Mike Catt win almost every honour in the game.
England's World Cup winner says they'll be no tears on Saturday (I suspect Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill said the same, and they were blubbing by the end of their final games) and that he'll enjoy his moment, say thank you and move on. Catt says the rumours linking him to the Director of Rugby role at Worcester are well wide of the mark. He admits he's got a lot to learn and he's happiest on the training pitch in a hands-on role. He's not ready for the admin or politics.
There are a few English players who know they'll definitely be enjoying end of season finals. Jonny Wilkinson was looking a little battered and bruised - although relatively untouched compared to Imanol Harinordoquy - and he'd hardly slept when I interviewed him the day after Toulon's victory over Connacht, but he was revelling in the prospect of his first ever European final.
When Wilko joined Toulon he admitted it was a step into the unknown. Yes the club had cash to splash but just ask Manchester City fans if that brings you guaranteed success. This time last year Toulon only just avoided relegation; 12 months on and they have secured one final and finished top of the French Top 14 to guarantee a home semi-final.
Philippe St Andre deserves a huge amount of credit, not just for his coaching but for his talent gathering; what he's done is find a group of players who are desperate to win, but more importantly also willing to play for each other. As Wilkinson says, there are "no big egos in the team".
Despite the lack of sleep and one too many blows to the head Wilkinson was in good form, even joking about his team mates stumbling home as he was leaving for the airport that morning. Life in France is obviously agreeing with him. It may even have helped him deal with the disappointment of being dropped by England in the Six Nations. "If England never happens for me again I would honestly rather that than play and not perform," was his honest admission.