THERE was a delicious irony in the moment when the lesser-spotted Scott Johnson made one of his increasingly rare public appearances yesterday afternoon by absent-mindedly stumbling into the wrong hospitality suite in Murrayfield’s North Stand, and landed up on the periphery of a press conference just as John Barclay was being posed some rather tricky questions about why he thought he had spent the period between November 2013 and August 2015 in the international wilderness.
It was during director of rugby Johnson’s watch as interim head coach of the national team that Barclay’s face first became non-compliant with what Scotland were looking for. The official reasoning has always been that Barclay’s slighter physique and certain unidentified deficiencies in his game did not fit with the vision the new coaching regime had of a back-row packed with ball-carrying skyscrapers, but the suggestion that there might also have been some sort of clash of personalities has never gone away.
Whatever the full truth is, neither party seems particularly interested in harbouring grudges. The important thing now is that the 30-year-old is firmly back in the side and producing some of the best rugby of his career.
Vern Cotter would hardly give Barclay the time of day during his first year in charge of the national team, but a softening in attitude began during the lead-up to last year’s World Cup, when he was included in the training squad over the summer and played in two warm-up matches against Ireland and Italy. Although he did not make the main event, he was back to first choice flanker by the time the Six Nations came around, and also played in both Tests over in Japan during the summer.
A strong argument could be made that his performance against Australia last weekend, in Scotland’s first outing of the current season, was his best yet in a Scotland jersey – although Barclay chooses, unsurprisingly, to deflect that suggestion.
“That’s not for me to say. I enjoyed the game, it came to me a lot and I felt involved throughout,” he shrugs. “Freedom is maybe not the right word, but there’s a way Vern and his coaches encourage us to play. We have our structures but he wants us to play. I like the fact that I get to stay in the middle of the park a bit more. I felt involved and enjoyed the physicality of it. I was just disappointed with the result.”
Anyone who remembers Barclay bowling over two Welshmen in one collision on the way to the try-line at the Millennium Stadium in 2010 will vouch that he has always been more than just a traditional openside fetcher, and his performances for the Scarlets since moving there in 2013 reinforce that view. It was therefore no great surprise when he was selected at number eight this week, despite there being two players in the squad who would ordinarily regard that as their primary position.
Ryan Wilson, who started last week’s match at the back of the scrum but lasted only four minutes before going off with a gashed ankle, is fit again but was unable to train for most of the week so starts on the bench; while Magnus Bradbury, who is making his debut, has been named at blindside flanker.
“I started at six last week, moved to eight after four minutes, but it doesn’t change my role much in this team. The six and eight tend to do similar things. I’ve maybe just been put at eight to take some pressure off Magnus, because there will be a bit more decision making at scrums,” says Barclay.
“I’ll play anywhere, to be honest. I don’t know when or how it happened but I seemed to play most of my rugby at seven for about nine years, then I just ended up, through injuries at Scarlets, playing across the back row. They’re happy to have someone who can do that.”
“They are slightly different roles to start with, you have to know where you are off phase play, but once you’ve get started it can work well. I can’t play differently [depending on what the number is on his back]. I can’t suddenly play like a 130-kilo backrow, and we’re trying to play a fast, dynamic game.”
Barclay clearly doesn’t seem to think his game has changed much, which suggests that there has been a recognition from Cotter that his expectation have adapted in order to accommodate the best players available.
“I didn’t think I would get back involved. You always hope, but the longer it went on, the more I thought: ‘Oh, maybe this isn’t for me anymore.’ I feel quite proud of the fact that I stuck in there and managed not only to get involved again, but stay involved after the Six Nations,” he says.
“I spoke to the coaches a few times about it. I was invited on a couple of summer tours but had surgery which ruled me out, which didn’t help. I think you know that sometimes you’re flavour of the month – and sometimes you’re not. You’ve got to have an appreciation of that. I felt like I was playing well for Scarlets at the time so that helped me. If I was playing well, there was nothing more I can do. As you get older and wiser, you realise you can’t get too down about things you can’t control, as long as you’re still playing good rugby.”
Cotter will be hoping that some of that equanimity which comes from experience will have a reassuring effect on Bradbury, and on openside flanker Hamish Watson, who is making only his second start at international level, this afternoon – although Barclay is pretty sure they are ready to take it in their stride all by themselves.
“I remember, when I first came into a team to play with guys like Gordon Bulloch, Jason White and Simon Taylor … I was petrified walking around. But these young guys don’t seem to feel that way now, which is great. They just get in, get on with it and give their all,” he says
“Having said that, I did speak to Magnus after the team announcement and he told me he’d no idea that he was going to be picked, and he admitted that when the team was announced he was almost sick. So maybe it is exactly the same and I’m just looking at it from the other end of the spectrum now.
“But the guys tend to get involved younger now. They tend to be more ready physically than we were when I first started. Having the young guys about definitely keeps us on our toes.”
Not everybody gets a second chance at living their dream and Barclay is clearly determined to make the most of his. You could send yourself mad wondering what might have happened if he had not been sent into the international wilderness for those two years, when the team could undoubtedly have done with his common sense and experience at key moments – but unless someone has an assembly kit for a time machine there really is no point.
It is about the here and now for Barclay, which is why he is happy to help the youngsters around him in their initiation into the international game but has no patience for letting games like last week’s agonising loss to Australia carry on being a habit for the men in blue.
“It doesn’t count for a lot when I retire if I look back and say: ‘At least we were evolving – we had potential.’ You want to win every game,” he says.
“In the Six Nations, it was a bit more emotional for me because I hadn’t played for a while. I know I’m not a kid and I know I’m not going to play forever. You definitely have that appreciation, the older you get,” he concludes.
Image: Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk