GOOD timing is the key to what John Barclay does so well on the pitch, and the Scotland captain has just shown the same quality off the pitch as well, returning from injury in the nick of time to lead the team in this month’s three Autumn Tests at Murrayfield. The Scarlets forward could also be making more frequent appearances at the national stadium from next season if Edinburgh get their way, and yesterday he refused to rule out a return north at the end of the current campaign.
After being concussed while playing for Scarlets against Edinburgh towards the end of September, the 31-year-old spent six weeks on the sidelines, only making his comeback last weekend in his team’s PRO14 match against Benetton. With Greig Laidlaw already out of action for the forthcoming games against Samoa, New Zealand and Australia, the additional loss of Barclay would have deprived the national squad of another seasoned leader, so his safe return to action has been a relief to the Scotland coaching staff as well as to Barclay himself.
“I was sort of running out of time, which was playing on my mind a little bit,” the back-row forward admitted. “It wasn’t ideal the last six weeks. But I was lucky I got to play 60-odd minutes for Scarlets last weekend and managed to get one game under my belt. I felt quite well rested – obviously the lungs were a little bit rusty, but I was thankful to get a little run out before the weekend.
“It was a really tricky few weeks, actually. I’ve had head knocks before. I wouldn’t say I’m prone to them. I’ve had my fair share as a professional rugby player.
“It’s one of those ones that just dragged on a bit. It’s frustrating, because there’s no golden rule for it. It takes as long as it takes. I had some symptoms and had to just wait – bide my time for things to go away.
“[Playing] was good for confidence. Even before the game at the weekend I was a little bit anxious. Having a concussion and symptoms for as long as I did, it gave me a bit of peace of mind knowing that everything was fine. That was great for me.”
While full of praise for the Birmingham-based neurosurgeon and the other medical staff who ran tests on him and ultimately cleared him to return to play, Barclay remains concerned by one element of the process – one which could have serious consequences for other, less mature players. He passed those tests, and thus could have deemed himself fit to play, at a time when he knew he still did not feel right. His decision was to stay on the sidelines until he did feel better, but he knows that the situation in which others find themselves might well suggest a different decision.
“I passed the cognitive function test, so technically I could have said I felt fine,” he explained. “To me that’s where the system is so flawed.
“If I’d said I felt fine I could have played, because I’d passed all the online tests and the memory tests and stuff. But I still didn’t feel right, so that’s obviously where there is some room for improvement in the assessment of players.
“Everyone knows not to [return in those circumstances] – it’s just whether you choose not to. Where you are in your career . . . . .
“I think I’m reasonably smart enough not to do that. I’ve played a bit of rugby, I’ve got two kids and my wife is pregnant – I’m not going to risk long-term ill health or do something stupid just so I was fit to play in a rugby match, whether it’s playing for Scarlets or Scotland.
“I was not going to risk that. That’s just my approach – but I know probably that some other guys may not have done the same.”
After being hurt in a collision with Magnus Bradbury, Barclay initially thought he was recovering well, but after four days he began to feel unwell again. It was then that he began to appreciate he would be out for longer than initially expected, and that those specialised tests would be required.
“I had some migraines and my main issue was a sort of light-headedness which wouldn’t go away. Initially some sensitivity to noise and sort of irritability. My balance was OK; I was just light-headed.
“I went for brain scans and stuff which sounds quite extreme and scary, and they found that everything’s OK, which obviously puts your mind at rest to some degree. And they just run a whole host more tests . . . .
“Like, the stuff we do is great as a preliminary, but the stuff he’s doing is way more detailed and takes hours to do. He admits the stuff he’s doing isn’t perfect. He’s trying to find stuff that’s going to give them a better idea of how to treat these things. So he just said ‘Your cognitive function’s good, your brain is actually OK, so you just need to start trying to get back into things’.
“It’s one of those things you look back and you probably think it’s good to get a break. I think my body will be good for it.
“But the symptoms I had and the way concussions are it was hard to relax for all those weeks. I was irritable, had migraines. – it wasn’t even a case of ‘I can sit back, I can do weights, do other stuff’. It was very much a case of doing very little for a large part of the six weeks.”
Barclay will make up for that inactivity by doing quite a lot for the next three weeks at Murrayfield, but it remains to be seen if Edinburgh’s reported plans to bring him back to Scotland bear fruit and he ends up turning out for the capital club both there and at Myreside. The timing could well be right in this respect too, although he refused to commit himself when asked if there was a chance of that move to happening.
“I think there’s a chance of anything happening,” he said. “I’m playing at Scarlets at the moment and I’ve managed to get back into the Scotland fold. I’m captain of Scotland at the moment and playing for Scarlets. Obviously there’s a bit of speculation at the moment, but I don’t know what else to tell you, to be honest.”