NOT all superheroes wear capes.
Barry Sinclair, whose funeral was earlier today, didn’t ever rise above 2nd XV level as a prop at Portobello RFC after joining straight out of school in 1969, but his contribution to the club, to regional rugby in the east of Scotland and to the game nationally over the next half century was monumental – as the outpouring of grief immediately after his untimely death last month stands testament to.
Standing around 5ft 9ins, stout with rounded shoulders, wispy grey hair, bespectacled and thick moustache, Barry was unremarkable in appearance, and his understated general demeanour meant he could slip in and out of a room virtually unnoticed, but he got things done.
Officially, Barry had three job titles at Cavalry Park – secretary, director of senior men’s rugby and bar/club facilities convenor – however there wasn’t an activity at the club which didn’t fall under his remit in one way or another.
When the Portobello Hornets [mini section] needed a new child protection officer recently, Barry stepped up to the mark, without discussion or fanfare. When the pandemic required clubs to appoint a Covid-19 Safety Coordinator, guess who took that role? He was at Cavalry Park putting the bins out on a Monday afternoon in early December when he suffered the sudden and unexpected illness which took his life.
“There is a cupboard at Portobello where he kept sets of strips going back for years, spare kit and so on, and none of us had ever seen the inside of it,” recounts Ian Goodall, another club stalwart. “We were actually panicking before the Haddington match – the first one after Barry had died – that we wouldn’t be able to get into it and we would have to borrow a set of strips off the opposition.
“One of the first things we had to establish as a club after Barry passed away was whether Portobello was going to fold or continue? It really was that stark. Then, when we agreed that it had to continue, the next thing was to recognise that it was going to have to be ‘post-Barry’, meaning a completely new way of doing things, because not one person can take on all the stuff he did.
“It is going to have to be disseminated through a lot of people. Someone is going to have to book the pitches. Someone is going to have to turn up at training with the balls, water bottles and pads. Someone is going to have to take the strips to the laundrette afterwards.
“So, we’ll have to muddle through to the end of the season, and then we have to host a sevens in April to play for a ‘Barry Sinclair Trophy’ – that just has to happen – and then in the close-season we have to start really planning how to take the club forward, which is going to mean a lot more commitment from a lot more people.”
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Barry’s loss will be felt further afield than Portobello. He served two decades as a member of Scottish Rugby’s Edinburgh District/East Region Committee, during which time he accumulated a near encyclopaedic knowledge of how things were going at every club in that corner of the country, to whom he was always on hand with some friendly advice or a practical insight. His contribution on this front was recognised by a minute’s silence being observed at every match in the region on the Saturday after his death.
He had also recently expressed an interest in standing again for the Scottish Rugby Council (he previously sat on that body from 2007 to 2012), having become increasingly frustrated with aspects of how the community game was being managed from Murrayfield.
Characters like Barry – middle-aged/retired white males – have been maligned by some in recent seasons as out of touch with the modern game. Those who promote such lazy stereotypes cannot have ever stepped foot inside a grassroots clubhouse, and clearly have no concept of the selfless dedication, ingenuity and hard-earned wisdom required to keep the show on the road at this level, in an era of unprecedented bureaucracy, spiralling financial uncertainty and plummeting player numbers.
“After my dad and my mum got married in 1974, my dad became an elder of Leith St Andrew’s Church, and I think he found a way to act out his faith through rugby,” explains his son, Chris. “It was an opportunity to volunteer and contribute to something he was passionate about, to help people, to use sport to help provide some direction. It wasn’t something he ever spoke about, he wasn’t a big talker, but I think that was at the heart of it for him.
“We used to joke about his second home, but we’re not sure whether that referred to the house or the rugby club,” Chris adds. “The amount of time he spent there was a bone of contention sometimes, and he talked numerous times about giving it all up at the end of the season, but we never saw that happen. Ultimately, he put an awful lot into it, but he also got an awful lot out of it.”
During a meeting for coaches of the mini section at Portobello before the start of the current season, there was a lengthy discussion about whether the cost of hiring the artificial pitch at the High School for an extra hour each Sunday could be justified. Barry listened patiently but eventually lost his patience and intervened with words to the effect of: “If we have kids who want to play rugby then this shouldn’t really be a conversation”. He added ‘hiring pitch for an extra hour’ to his already lengthy ‘to-do’ list without even bothering to look up to check if he had a consensus. There are people who make a lot of noise about what being progressive looks like, and there are those who get on with achieving things to actively build a better future.
“Barry was the backbone of Portobello RFC,” says Eddie Robb, who took over as President in 2017, aged just 29 at the time, hoping to shake things up after one of those cyclical tough periods which all clubs at that level endure.
“He had already put up with 19 club presidents before I bounced in fresh-faced at No 20, showering him with grand plans like confetti. Barry may have been the old guard, but his mind was open. He had, literally, been around the Portobello block and used that experience to sharpen his ambition for the club, rather than fog it.
“Barry would thoughtfully consider each of my schemes and I’d study that moustache waiting for any twitch of a verdict. The good ideas got the Barry treatment: he propelled them into reality. The other ideas got the Barry treatment too – but usually with a quick one-liner and that customary smirk!
“He fought ferociously to keep the club game at the heart of Scottish Rugby and wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers to protect that. After 50 years at the pit-face, he knew Scottish Rugby and the Murrayfield politics inside out and as such was an amazing teacher.
“At my first SRU AGM as club president, we had to leave early for a Porty match. We were walking to the car park and spotted someone up ahead foraging away sandwiches from the catering spread. ‘Sneaking out early, are we Gregor?’ Gregor Townsend turned around, a big smile, and warmly embraced Barry. Together we walked and talked to the car park. I was a little star struck but this was only the beginning of a long list of Scottish Rugby legends that Barry knew personally and introduced me to over the years. He was a well-known and well-loved fixture of the rugby community.
“Barry’s belief in people and the game gave him an unrelenting stamina; he was the heartbeat of Portobello. He was a great mentor, support, colleague and friend and will be sorely missed. You can’t separate the man from the club, nor the club from the man. Porty and Barry go hand in hand. We will never forget him and all he has done for the sport.”
Barry wasn’t unique – although his level of dedication was at the extreme end of the ‘club stalwart’ spectrum. These people are irreplaceable, and each time one of them leaves us the tight weave which creates the base-layer fabric of Scottish rugby is loosened.
He is survived by wife Christine, children Karen and Christopher, their partners Martyn and Ann, and grandson Finlay.
A JustGiving page has been set up in Barry’s memory, collecting donations for the Murrayfield Injured Players Foundation. If you would like to contribute then please click HERE.