As a spy in the enemy camp John Barclay is cut from fairly cerebral cloth, more George Smiley than James Bond, especially when he sports his reading glasses. First capped way back in 1997, Barclay was then the coming man and, while 46 caps is not to be sniffed at, he has taken his own sweet time collecting them, nine seasons and counting.
Since switching to West Wales and the Scarlets three years ago he has rediscovered the best of himself as an astute breakaway who can play across the third row. He lives in Wales, works in Wales and insists that the Principality Stadium is the “most atmospheric in the world” so has he had his brains picked on today’s opposition?
We haven’t beaten Wales for a number of years so you can probably guess what they think about usJohn Barclay
“A couple of times this week Vern has asked me what I’ve seen from the boys and what I think,” replies Barclay in his usual considered manner. “Greig [Laidlaw] has asked me a couple of times too and I’m happy to give my opinion. I guess, though, there’s enough footage out there for everyone to have a clear understanding and perhaps what I see is not what everybody else sees.
“When I first went to Scarlets I always thought it would be good craic to play against them; I’ve had to wait four and a half years to do it!”
Barclay has spent a long time wandering the international wilderness and is especially eloquent on what selection meant for him last weekend, having resigned himself to club rugby after missing out on RWC’15.
“After the World Cup I didn’t think I would be selected again so I just got my head down. I got on with my own business so it was really special to come back and play for Scotland at Murrayfield. It was great to have my family there and the atmosphere was incredible. Of course, you have to balance that with the disappointment of the result.”
If the England result was disappointing Barclay hasn’t yet been able to watch a re-run of the infamous 2010 match in Cardiff when the Scots had a ten-point lead inside the final five minutes and still came a distant second after suffering not one but two yellow cards, the second of which included Lee Bryne’s audition for an Oscar given his theatrical fall in the face of Phil Godman’s challenge.
“We lost that game and I still don’t know how,” says Barclay. “That is the most disappointing game of rugby I’ve ever been involved in. That was a disaster for us, we threw that away in the last play of the game.
“We drew with England and beat Ireland and it was a good championship to be involved in but that match does stand out for all the wrong reasons. I haven’t even watched it. Someone put it on Twitter the other day but I couldn’t watch it.”
Like everyone else in blue, Barclay has a Herculean task today. He and John Hardie face the twin threats of Lions pairing Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, two specialist “fetchers” who are both hard over the ball and athletic with it. If the Welsh skipper was a little off the pace in Dublin he will be all the better for getting some rust out of the system after a long injury lay-off and normal service should be resumed this afternoon.
The twin Scottish sevens made little impact against the sheer size and strength of the English forwards who knocked them back in the contact area. The flankers did team up to win Scotland that second penalty just before the break but upon closer inspection Barclay was only able to make a nuisance of himself because it was George Ford who was clearing him out the ruck and not terribly well.
For once the physical mismatch was in Scotland’s favour but the argument about size versus stealth and speed won’t go away because fielding Barclay and Hardie in tandem, two relatively small men in international terms, is something of a luxury for Scotland. If Hardie was better over the ball or Barclay hit a bit harder then Cotter would surely use just the one and field a more dynamic, physical specimen on the blind side.
The pairing didn’t quite work against England but their task, like the backs behind them, is that much more difficult to execute off the back foot and that was where Scotland’s tight five found themselves all too often in a dispiriting performance.
If others are angry about the media’s reaction to Scotland’s eighth consecutive Six Nations defeat, Barclay adopts a more philosophical view worthy of Smiley himself, when asked about how the Welsh view today’s visitors.
“We haven’t beaten them for a number of years so you can probably guess what they think about us,” says the exile. “We have to give them a reason to respect us. We finished bottom of the pile last year so we have to show them. Listen, they know we have good players but they know we haven’t put it together just yet.”