FROM the outside looking in, John Barclay has had a pretty good lockdown. “I have done a bit of training but there is only so much you can do with no weights or access to a gym, so I’ve been out running, I’ve done a fair bit of road cycling with Jim Hamilton who has moved back up to Scotland, and a lot of cooking and baking and barbecuing,” he says.
The reality, almost inevitably, is not quite so simple – and while Barclay recognises that he is in a privileged position in comparison to many, he does explain that he has been left in a state of limbo by the biggest health crisis in living memory happening just as his rugby career reached a pivotal moment.
“My normal life used to be very focussed,” he explains. “It was all geared towards the game – even in the off-season it was geared towards pre-season, then pre-season was geared towards the start of the season, the start of the season was geared towards the Autumn Internationals, and so it went on – but now my day is about getting up and looking after the kids while my wife goes to work, so I have really struggled with the lack of identity and purpose.
“I know I am lucky that I have the opportunity to spend more time doing some of the stuff I enjoy doing, but the lack of that rugby structure in my life is a bit tricky.”
With his Edinburgh contract coming to an end, and his 34th birthday fast approaching, the man who led Scotland to Calcutta Cup glory in 2018 had been hoping for a strong end to a frustrating 2019-20 season, which would have given him the opportunity to either bow out on his own terms or find another deal to keep the dream alive for (at least) one more year – but it wasn’t to be, leaving him feeling like he has unfinished business.
“In the space of two years I have gone from Scotland captain, to rupturing my Achilles, to managing to get back after a year to establish myself as first choice in the back-row for Edinburgh, to going to the World Cup which didn’t go the way we hoped, and then when I came back I couldn’t get a game,” he reflects.
“It quickly became very clear that the coaches at Edinburgh had decided they were going to go with younger players, which is fine but it was disappointing how it was handled. I wasn’t given any opportunities to fight for the jersey. I wasn’t involved in any leadership meetings. I was the most experienced guy there yet nobody was asking me to be involved in anything, so at that point you are saying to yourself: ‘OK, I’m not going to be here much longer’.
“Then I got concussed and coronavirus came along, so it has been a tough two years. It was meant to be this great move home, and it just hasn’t really worked out that way.
“If I am honest, I was looking at retiring come January, but then this stuff kicked off, and how fast things have changed has made me reassess,” he continues.
“It is easy to fall into the mindset of just agreeing with people and saying: ‘Oh yeah, maybe I am just getting on a bit’. But I am 33 now, and two years ago I was probably playing my best ever rugby. I’ve not played a huge amount of rugby since then and there is definitely an appetite to still keep playing. It is just tricky to work out where that might be because as much as recruitment has dried up in the off-field world, recruitment in rugby is pretty minimal at the moment as well. In terms of timing, it has been a perfect storm.”
Have boots, will travel
Barclay and his family have set up home on the west side of Edinburgh and are very settled there, but he is open to the idea of flitting between two bases in order to keep playing at the highest possible level.
“There are two pro teams in Scotland so finding a pro contract up here is tricky, but my wife and I haven’t ruled out me going and playing somewhere else with a bit of a commute,” he confirms. “That is something we just need to figure out if the option arises.
“I still think I have a lot to offer from a playing point of view, but also a lot to offer in helping mentor younger players; and helping with the culture through understanding – from experience – what good looks like, and also what bad looks like.
“That’s what I want – I’d love to keep playing and I’d love to stay involved in the game if I can – but I just don’t know what that looks like just now.”
Looking to the future
In the meantime, he is in the process of laying the groundwork for the post-playing stage of his life, whether that happens to kick off in earnest this year or in a couple of years’ time.
“There is a lot of great things about being involved with coaching and it means you can stay in that team environment, but I have also seen some things that I don’t like about the way the game is going which I wouldn’t want to do, and I don’t know if I want to be in that two-year cycle for the rest of my life,” he muses.
“I enjoy the media stuff and would like to do more of that, which is something I have been exploring during lockdown.
“And I’m also looking at getting involved in leadership and people development, using what I have learned during 15 years in the professional game. I am speaking to a couple of friends high up in the SAS and army about setting up a leadership consultancy, to take our experiences to businesses in a non-corporate kind of way.”
The importance of people
One project he has already thrown himself into is his role as a brand ambassador for a new app called ‘engage4’, which has been created by Scottish company Vidatec to help employers and employees stay connected and happy with their work environment in a world where human contact inside businesses is going to happen less and less.
“In a nutshell, it is a wellbeing app that tries to keep a finger on the pulse of organisations and their relationship with their staff,” Barclay explains. “And with what has happened during the last few months – everyone being stuck at home – that is something that is particularly important at the moment.
“It improves people’s engagement, keeps people connected, and you can do as much or as little with it as you want to – but the whole idea is that you are making an investment in your people and your culture.
“I got involved through a mutual friend and it really resonated with my experiences of being in teams where there is a great culture and a real investment in looking after people. This kind of stuff really fascinates me because on the flip side I have seen it done really badly.
“It is just a really easy-to-use app. You get your employees to sign up to it and every day they check-in, and it deals with things like: ‘How are you feeling about work today?’ And if they are having a rough time then they can say: ‘I’m having a crap day’ – without having to sit down and have a meeting and escalate the whole thing.
“So, from an employee point of view, it gives you the chance to let the people you work for understand your feelings and the general feelings of the group, without having to organise a meeting or send an email.
“It can also be used for creating engagement beyond the work side of things, so you can connect across different parts of the business, set up groups, do challenges. That’s something which is quite common in professional rugby because we are all together all of the time, but I think in an office environment – and as we move more and more towards working from home – you can have people who won’t see any of their colleagues for days or weeks on end, so this is a way of keeping everyone engaged.
“Thankfully, there is more and more understanding of the mental health side of things – and the mental health impact of coronavirus could be pretty substantial because a lot of people struggle with change, and a lot of people don’t like being in isolation – so this is an app to try and help people with that sort of stuff, by letting them engage in a friendly and easy to use way.”
- Vidatec is an award-winning web and mobile app development company headquartered in Stirling with offices in Edinburgh. The company has been in business for 10 years and works with forward-thinking brands and organisations to create inspiring digital solutions, with the main aim to improve people’s lives in a more connected, convenient and entertaining way. The company is behind the popular Coach to 5K app, which was developed alongside Public Health England and the BBC. Vidatec has also worked with the Army, Travelopia and SAGA among others.