Big in Japan: John Barclay won’t look back in anger at wilderness years

Flanker was shunned by Scotland for three years but kept his faith, and is now looking forward to a third World Cup campaign

John Barclay meets some fans during the Scotland squad's visit to Highland RFC's impressive Canal Park base in Inverness. Image: ©Craig Watson -

JOHN BARCLAY should really be preparing for his fourth World Cup this summer. The fact that it is only his third, after he missed the 2015 tournament in England, is pushing the veteran back-rower to make sure he reaches a level beyond the already unquestionably high standard he was setting before a ruptured Achilles wiped out most of last season.

“I said openly it was the single biggest disappointment of my career to not go [in 2015] – to put in all the work and not get picked,” he reflects. “Then someone [Grant Gilchrist] got injured, and I still didn’t get picked [Blair Cowan was called up instead]. So, I didn’t really enjoy or watch the World Cup, I just found it really frustrating. And that’s definitely a driver for me.”

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Barclay made his international debut two days after his 21st birthday as one of Frank Hadden’s sacrificial lambs against New Zealand during the 2007 tournament, and by the time 2011 rolled around he was up to 29-caps and well established as a senior player in the squad, but then came the wilderness years.

After the 2013 November Test series, Barclay – who had by that time moved from Glasgow Warriors to Scarlets – disappeared off the international radar for the best part of two years.

A breakdown in his relationship with Scott Johnson, who was interim head coach at the time and later became the SRU’s Director of Rugby, is generally understood to be the reason behind his lack of involvement despite playing some of the best rugby of his career at club level during that peroiod, but to Barclay’s credit he has always resisted being drawn into the blame game.

Vern Cotter had taken over as head coach by 2015, and Barclay was brought back into the fold for the training camp ahead of that World Cup – playing in two of the team’s warm-up matches against Ireland away and Italy at home – but didn’t make the final cut.

It was a bitter pill to swallow but he says he didn’t ever consider following the lead of his big pal Jim Hamilton, who announced his international retirement soon after he got the call from Cotter to say he was being left at home.

“I always thought it was a bit funny – if you don’t get picked then you retire – you’re not picked anyway so nobody is going to be bothered,” chuckles Barclay.

“I felt the camp had gone well, and I had played really well in the warm-up games. That added to the frustration, but equally I was always aware I didn’t want to be petulant. Throughout the time I wasn’t picked I didn’t throw the toys out. I just kept my head down.

“Six months later I was back for the Six Nations and another 12 months later I was captain. It’s something I actually speak to younger guys about, just how quickly cycles change. One minute you are flavour of the month, the next minute you are not. It’s just about taking a step back and actually looking at the situation, and realising things change very fast.”

Barclay currently has 71 caps to his name. He could quite easily have been knocking on the door of a century of appearances had he not been persona non grata for three years during his prime, but he isn’t interested in looking back in anger at what might have been.

More recently, he has not played for Scotland since last March, but this time it is injury which has kept him out. It has been a frustrating time, but the good news is that he is fit now, feeling fresh and raring to go.

“I was originally hoping to get back for the Six Nations, but it became apparent it was going to take seven months and I wasn’t going to make it,” he reflected. “It’s just good to be involved again, and it was good to get a little bit of rugby at the tail end of the season just to see how things are.

“It gives me confidence to know the body is all right and the Achilles is going to hold up. It was important for me to just get a few games in, probably mentally as much as physically.

“In 14 or 15 years I have never seen that injury so it is quite rare, but I have been in squads where people have done it before and they re-occur or have constant issues. But my body feels good.  I’ve not had too many niggles. My Achilles feels great.

“Mentally, I think I’ve got a hunger. You watch guys playing when you’re not involved, and no matter who you are, you always worry you’re not going to get back in.

“I’ve done a few of these camps now so I know how long they are. It’s important you enjoy them – this may be my last chance of a World Cup so let’s make it enjoyable.

Does that mean there is no chance of him coming back for another tilt at it in four years’ time, when he is 37-yeard-old?

“I’ll never say never,” he retorts, with the knowing smile of a man whose international career has risen from the ashes once already.

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About David Barnes 4028 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.