Alfie Barbeary: ‘I shot myself in the foot – this is an opportunity to catch Steve Borthwick’s eye’

Alfie Barbeary will start for England A’s against Portugal at Welford Road  (Getty Images)
Alfie Barbeary will start for England A’s against Portugal at Welford Road (Getty Images)

The timing could not have been worse. It was the day that Steve Borthwick was set to name his England squad for the Six Nations, and Bath’s Alfie Barbeary sat anxiously in the disciplinary dock, awaiting his fate.

The Bath No 8 had been in outstanding club form, pushing again for the international honours for which he has at times seemed destined. A conversation with Borthwick at a health food cafe had ended with a suggestion of the youngster’s place in the head coach’s long-term plans.

But Barbeary’s hopes of international inclusion were dashed by a flash of red. Twice in a single Champions Cup fixture, Barbeary made contact with the head of a Racing 92 player, resulting in two yellows and a sending off; there was little surprise when a three-match ban was confirmed just hours after Borthwick unveiled a 36-man squad in which Barbeary was not included.

“I shot myself in the foot,” Barbeary admits to The Independent, speaking for the first time since his suspension. Having missed out on full England selection, Barbeary will instead pull on an England A shirt at Welford Road on Sunday as the second-string side return to the rugby calendar with a fixture against Portugal.

“The suspension couldn’t have come at a worse time, really. I knew it might affect my chances of being in the Six Nations squad, and I reckon it probably did in the end. That’s just rugby, though. Everyone has their opinion on it, but unless you are a rugby player, you don’t really understand these incidents. I put everything that was said about it to the back of my head.

“I can’t change anything now; I’ve got a great opportunity to represent England in this A fixture against Portugal. It would be nice to think that this is an opportunity where I can show that I am more than just a Premiership player.”

Barbeary has certainly drawn eyeballs this season, establishing himself as the ball-carrying bastion of a Bath back row and influential in their emergence as Premiership title contenders. The 23-year-old has long been considered one of English rugby’s top prospects since his days as a schoolboy centre, impressing in Wasps’ academy as a dynamic hooker but now thriving as a bruising No 8.

Alfie Barbeary has been in outstanding form for Bath (Getty Images)
Alfie Barbeary has been in outstanding form for Bath (Getty Images)

“There was always a question mark over which position I’d choose,” Barbeary explains. “At the time, Eddie Jones wanted me at hooker and Wasps wanted me in the back row. But what do I enjoy doing most? Carrying the ball, and I feel like in the back row I get those opportunities a lot more.

“I’ve worked a lot on repeatability. When I came to Bath, they wanted me as their prime ball carrier. I worked a lot on how I could find myself on the ball a lot more, and as the season has gone on those stats have increased.

“When you become a ball carrier in the side, you can get targeted a little bit. I’m not saying I’m anything special. You look at the big ball carriers and you know where teams get their go forward. If you stop them, you can change the game.

“It’s about how you adapt to it. You can either take it and get smashed for 80 minutes or be the ones on the front foot. I’m working on how I can dictate where I want the defender to be. Rather than letting them have dominance over me, how can I manipulate them for the team’s best interests? It’s only bringing out the best in me and the best in Bath. They are making me look good so I’m happy, and they seem happy with me.”

Barbeary is loving life at Bath, putting an injury-disrupted first season in the city behind him. The 23-year-old arrived at the club in November 2022 with a hamstring issue, before suffering a knee injury that required surgery on debut. An annus horribilis had already provided challenges enough with the demise of Wasps. Barbeary had been with the Coventry-based club since his first days knocking about at Banbury RUFC; the youngster did not expect his time in the Midlands to come to such an abrupt end.

Barbeary is looking forward to reuniting on the pitch with a couple of former Wasps colleagues (Getty Images)
Barbeary is looking forward to reuniting on the pitch with a couple of former Wasps colleagues (Getty Images)

Before arriving in England A camp, Barbeary caught up over a coffee with fellow squad members Charlie Atkinson and Olly Hartley, two more ex-Wasps forced to pick up things and begin elsewhere. They form part of an exciting squad named by George Skivington to face World Cup darlings Portugal, the visitors under-strength due to the ongoing Rugby Europe campaign but sure to test a relatively inexperienced England group.

Thrusting Saracens centre Hartley and crafty fly half Atkinson, who swapped Leicester for Gloucester over Christmas, join their old Wasps chum among those bidding to prove themselves in a bright bunch of international hopefuls. For Barbeary, a starter at No 8, the chance to pull on an England shirt of any kind is special after all of the bumps in the road – but he knows Borthwick will be watching on.

“It’s been a crazy 18 months,” he admits. “New clubs, redundancies, injuries – you name it. To all be here as friends who grew up from the age of 13 or 14 together is a surreal experience. There is that buzz around camp where guys are excited to prove a point and represent their country.

“I think it is a great stepping stone – everyone’s ambition is to play for their country, and I think England A is a great idea to make it as seamless a transition as possible when people do get that opportunity.

Bath bruiser Barbeary is on Steve Borthwick’s radar (Getty Images)
Bath bruiser Barbeary is on Steve Borthwick’s radar (Getty Images)

“It will be a very proud moment for me and my family. They’ve put up a lot with injuries, my breakdowns over injuries, my head losses. For me, I can go out and represent England again, which I haven’t done since I was 18 or 19. I think this is an opportunity to push on and maybe catch the eye of Steve. We know England are watching and we want to prove that we can take the next step.”