Rated a 50-50 prospect ... Berrick Barnes. Photo: Quentin Jones
THE pressure on Berrick Barnes during the Waratahs' South African trip is intense. Not only must he improve his province's slim finals hopes but he is also fighting to hold onto his spot in the Wallabies Test training squad.
So intense is competition for midfield positions in the Wallabies squad to play Scotland and Wales next month, Barnes is no certainty to make the 34-man cut to be announced on May 28. Wallabies insiders say Barnes is only a ''50-50 prospect'', with his performances in the next two rounds against the Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday (tomorrow morning, Sydney time) and the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein next week crucial in determining whether he appears in the green and gold next month.
Barnes has been among the first chosen in a Wallabies squad for most of his career. But this season, the vacancies have tightened up, with Kurtley Beale pushing strongly for the No.10 Test spot, Quade Cooper returning from injury tonight, James O'Connor expected to start training in the next week and Ben Lucas providing a viable pivot alternative at the Reds.
At inside-centre, Pat McCabe remains the standout candidate, while Mike Harris is a strong possibility of making the squad after several excellent performances for the Reds, with his accurate goal-kicking a standout. Anthony Faingaa is another option.
In the end, the Wallabies selectors may have to decide between Barnes and Harris. There are several factors working in Barnes's favour. The competition is a little lighter with Brumbies No.10 Christian Lealiifano out for the season, while Barnes has the advantage of experience.
In a confusing opening to the Test season where the Wallabies have to play twice in five days, Robbie Deans will rely on those who have been there, done that. This is not the time to blood too many raw talents.
As Deans likes to put it, Barnes ''has background'' after being involved in 37 Tests, and the coach is an admirer of the Waratahs utility's enthusiasm and willingness to always help out.
Barnes is very much a confidence player, and when it is high he is capable of anything. But when it is down, his form is seriously affected.
This season with the Waratahs, his confidence levels have fluctuated. He has been criticised for over kicking at times and sitting too far back in the pocket at other times, but he has looked far more impressive recently when he has attacked the gain line with ball in hand, even if on occasions he has tried it in dangerous field positions.
With the Waratahs attempting to end a three-match losing stretch, Barnes's confidence is hardly at an effervescent level - and that is why the Wallabies selectors will closely observe how he fares both at sea level and on the veld in South Africa.
How he leads the team will not only be vital for the Waratahs, who cannot afford any more losses, but also for Barnes. It will determine whether he will hold onto his Test spot, after being involved in Australia's last international, against Wales in Cardiff last December, at No.12 - scoring the final try in the 24-18 victory.
Of the Waratahs contingent, the only Wallabies certainties are prop Benn Robinson, hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and back-line utility Adam Ashley-Cooper.
There are many who still need to convince the Test selectors that they have what it takes to be picked. Those who should be selected include centre Rob Horne, back row Dave Dennis, No.8 Wycliff Palu and prop Sekope Kepu.
Those who are hovering are winger Tom Kingston, utility back Bernard Foley, second-rower Sitaleki Timani and former Test captain Rocky Elsom, who will use the next two matches to show whether he is fit for an international return. Back-up hooker John Ulugia may be a bolter.
How Drew Mitchell fares in his comeback match against the Cheetahs next weekend will be critical as one of the gaps in the Test squad is on the wings. However, he could find himself in a similar situation to Cooper and O'Connor, where caution is applied and they are brought back into the Test arena later in the season.