DAVID BARNES in HAMAMATSU
JOHN BARCLAY has vowed to grab his shot at redemption with both hands after being one of the senior Scotland players dropped out of the match-day squad for last week’s game against Samoa, as head coach Gregor Townsend looked to shake things up following the team’s World Cup opening weekend defeat to Ireland.
While the veteran flanker recognises that a recall to the frontline for Sunday’s do-or-die clash against Japan in Yokohama is unlikely, he is hopeful of securing a place on the bench for that match by registering a big performance as captain of the dirt-trackers in tomorrow [Wednesday] morning’s penultimate pool stage outing against Russia.
With only 31 players in Scotland’s full World Cup squad and 23 players required for each match-day, there iscertain to be some doubling-up for the two matches despite the games only being four days apart.
“I have been disappointed, I have been frustrated since the Ireland game,” said the 33-year-old. “The whole game was frustrating, but it’s part of being a rugby player. It’s the first time I have been left out of the squad since I returned to the fold [after the 2015 World Cup]. It’s been tough but now all my focus is on Russia.
“I have no idea what the team will be for Japan. I guess the reality is that the guys who are playing against Russia will be on the outskirts for the next game – it doesn’t take much to work that out – but, equally, for the guys who are playing against Russia there is huge motivation to get involved for that Japan match.
“The reality is there will need to be a big performance and I need to prove I deserve to be involved against Japan.”
Competition for places
While the short turnaround is one reason why it is very unlikely that Barclay (and his fellow veteran back-row Ryan Wilson) will start in both games, the far more significant barrier to that happening is the form of the younger players – Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and Blade Thomson – who really stepped up to the plate with big performances when given their chance against Samoa.
“They were good, weren’t they?” acknowledged Barclay. “I’ve played enough with Maggie [Bradbury] and Jamie at Edinburgh so I know the quality they have. And I know enough about Blade from speaking to the boys at Scarlets [Thomson’s current club, and where Barclay played between 2013 and 2018] about the qualities he has, and just from being in and around him during this World Cup camp.
“It’s one of those [situations] when you knew there would a reaction. I didn’t doubt the back-row would play well, it was a physical game and the boys played really well, I thought.”
While Scotland should have more than enough firepower to get the bonus-point win they need against Russia, it is not a foregone conclusion. The Russians have exceeded expectations at this World Cup – having got in via the back door when three other countries who finished the qualifying process ahead of them were chucked out for fielding ineligible players – they haven’t managed to stay within 20 points of any of the teams they have played so far.
Keeping an eye on the prize
The key, according to Barclay, will be to avoid putting the cart before the horse.
“I’ve played enough of these games where if you try to score four tries before you score one you can get in a bit of trouble,” he reasoned. “We’re not thinking about that early on. If it gets to 70 minutes and we’ve only scored one that might become the case but we have to back ourselves and not try to score the fourth before we’ve scored the third.
“We need to back our skills and grind them down,” he continued. “We believe our fitness will be superior to theirs. We’re confident, but we’ve seen the trouble they’ve given every team they’ve played. They’re physical, hard at the breakdown, they make things niggly and awkward. When they have the ball, they’re abrasive and direct, and they’re hard. We’re under no illusions about it.
“There’s five guys [in the Scotland team] who haven’t played at all and they’re sort of chomping at that bit. We’ve been here over four weeks now and they haven’t played a minute of rugby, so that’s frustrating for them. I’ve not played a huge amount in four weeks so throughout the squad there’s points to prove about selection.
“But also points to prove to themselves. Guys want to get out there, it’s the World Cup and a big stage and it’s great to be able to play for Scotland again.”
While sticking to a patient game-plan makes sense, with players such as George Horne, Adam Hastings and Darcy Graham in the Scottish back-line there will be a natural instinct to roll the dice. The key is making sure that the young tykes pick their moment to have a go, says Barclay.
“We’ve got some good leaders, experienced guys like Fraser Brown, Ryan and Horney [Peter Horne]. Duncan Taylor has won European Cups and been player of the year for Saracens, and Tommy Seymour has played a huge amount of top-level rugby. So, the job for us is that we have to bring our experience,” said Barclay.
“But it’s a bit of both, the younger guys bring a lot of youthful exuberance and for us in the heat, that can be contagious: to have the younger ones who are full of energy, full of running, that can be great for us.”