Good things come to those who wait but John Barclay has been kicking his heels a lot longer than most. Scotland’s latest captain originally appeared in the national squad as a 17-year-old just out of school, and was first capped, against New Zealand, a decade ago. But only now, at the grand old age of 30, will the flanker lead the team on to the field at Murrayfield for the first time in his long and distinguished career.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Barclay, “a proud a day for my family and for me. I know it’s a cliché but I’d much rather win at the weekend, I’m not much bothered about titles, and I know Greig [Laidlaw] is the same; we want to win and that’s enough for us.”
It has been a remarkable turnaround for Barclay. After being aggressively pushed by one Australian coach, Matt Williams, at the very start of his professional career, the flanker found himself cold shouldered by another, Scott Johnson, who dropped him, and Barclay spent a long 21 months (from November 2013 to August 2015) in the international wilderness.
Following a dispiriting defeat by South Africa in the autumn of 2013 it has long been rumoured that Johnson and Barclay had a row. Whatever the details, Barclay didn’t feature for Scotland again during Johnson’s tenure.
When Vern Cotter took over he also ignored Barclay’s claims, playing him in a warm-up for the 2015 Rugby World Cup but leaving him out of the main event. Only in the last 12 months has Barclay been at the forefront of the Kiwi coach’s thinking, earning his first Six Nations start under Cotter against England last season.
“He has experience and good leadership qualities,” said Cotter. “He’s been part of the leadership group and was captain when Greig [Laidlaw] went off against France, although he unfortunately then had to come off too. So it was pretty easy, all we had to do was wait to make sure that his shoulder was okay. As soon as Greig was injured in Paris he took over the captaincy. It was something that had been spoken about beforehand, perhaps not with John, but the coaches had discussed it. Captaincy is something that comes naturally to him, he doesn’t have to force it. And he’s respected by the players so it was pretty easy.”
Now Barclay leads Scotland against a Welsh team that includes many of his Scarlets team-mates, in a match that will go a long way towards determining the success of both sides in this tournament.
What’s more, the flanker has to somehow fill the huge void left by one of the game’s smaller players. Scrum-half Laidlaw has led Scotland more than anyone else, overtaking David Sole’s 25-match mark in the 2016 Six Nations, and while the newbie leader may be a little inexperienced to know exactly what to do, he is smart enough to understand how not to go about the business.
“I’ve been texting Greig and will ring him later just to have a chat with him,” said Barclay. “I can’t try and be like Greig as captain but since Monday I realised just how much stuff Greig does in addition to what you guys see and even in addition to what I saw as a player in the squad. It’s opened my eyes a little bit to see the influence he’s had behind the scenes and on the group.
“I think it’s important that I don’t try to be like Greig. That’s not meant disrespectfully, it means that I have to be my [own] captain. I think if I try to be Greig the players will see through that.
“I have to captain the team as myself. But certainly Greig has put in the structures and practices that the captain is expected [to do], so I guess the guidelines are there. I think as the captain you can go about it how you want to.”
If being captain wasn’t enough to worry about, Barclay has to battle against two of the best in the business, the Lions pair of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric who, the Scot noted, come with a “proven pedigree”.
Barclay is undoubtedly his own man but he has a few other leaders on the field to tap into should the need arise. Cotter also let slip that Laidlaw was still in camp and talking to the players on a daily basis, offering advice and psychological support until the end of next week.
Still, the new man admitted that he had underestimated the amount of unseen work that falls into the captain’s lap.
“It’s just more speaking to guys before training, speaking to the playmakers. Obviously Greig as captain is in a role as a playmaker, whereas I’m in the forwards and not so much in that role. It’s just checking everyone’s happy.
“There’s a few changes this week, and it’s making sure guys like Finn [Russell, the stand-off] and Ali [Price, the scrum-half] are happy with how we prepared and if there are things we need to do and things that we don’t want to be doing at the weekend based on how we’ve trained… and then speaking with Vern and the coaches.”
What about the privileges, he was asked, that come with being the national captain?
“I think you’re meant to have your own room,” replied Barclay, “but Ryan [Wilson] didn’t want me to leave. So I don’t have my room.”