What happened to Scotland’s ‘Killer B’ back-row?

Scotland trio Kelly Brown, left, Johnnie Beattie, centre and John Barclay in 2011.  Picture: SNS

Scotland trio Kelly Brown, left, Johnnie Beattie, centre and John Barclay in 2011. Picture: SNS

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Brown, Beattie and Barclay were supposed to be the future of Scotland’s back row – so what happened, asks Iain Morrison

What a relief to hear Sean Lamont insist last week that he would never retire from international rugby when so many players step down to extend their club careers.

They will have to stretcher Lamont out of the game, such is his passion for the fray, and I hope he wins a place in Scotland’s World Cup squad as reward. Lamont will be 34 on Thursday and, first capped way back in 2004, he has enviable longevity.

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Which makes the demise of Glasgow’s famous three amigos all the harder to understand. The so called “Killer Bs” back row consisted of John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown. They were supposed to be the bright future of Scottish rugby but, in the prime of their life, all three of Glasgow’s finest are scattered to the winds and two are in stuck in the international wilderness.

Of the three only Beattie appeared in two of the autumn Tests for Scotland, and even then he had to be content with a place on the bench until the Tonga match. The other two were nowhere to be seen. Barclay last played for Scotland well over a year ago, and it is unlikely that Scott Johnson received a Christmas card from Brown after the then Scotland coach made the flanker captain for last season’s Six Nations, dropped and then re-called the Melrose man.

All three of them are in their prime either side of 30, old enough to have learned all the short cuts, still young enough to take them. Their high water mark came in Dublin in 2010 when the “Killer Bs” comprehensively outplayed Ireland’s Lions trio of David Wallace, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip. Beattie scored an outrageous try, the best of the season, and the other two helped Scotland bully Ireland at the breakdown. It was the last time anyone could make that claim.

Everyone expected the three Scots breakaways to kick on but, five years on, it hasn’t happened. It’s difficult to know exactly why. Is it loss of form or has the game itself subtly changed even in the past few years?

“[Scotland coach] Vern Cotter came in and took the squad in a new direction and that is his call,” says Brown from London, where he helped Saracens secure the Aviva Premiership title in 2011. “I would love a chance to get back into the squad but that is up to me and I have to play as best I can and the selection will take care of itself.”

The versatile breakaway is perhaps a little too versatile for his own good in an era which demands ever more specialisation. Brown is smart and skilled, a throwback to a different era, albeit one just a decade old because, in 2005, Wales could field the slight figure of Michael Owens as No.8.

He captained the Principality to their first Grand Slam in 27 years but it’s doubtful that Owens could get arrested these days. No.8s are now viewed primarily as ball carriers, muscular and low slung, built like a brick out-house to run through brick walls. It is no surprise that two of the Six Nations teams will probably field dynamic Pacific Islanders at eight. There is still a place for the playmaker eight, hence Sergio Parisse and Kieran Reid may be the best in either half of the globe, but even they are not exempt from demolition duty.

At least Brown was given a couple of areas of his game to work on, whereas Barclay didn’t receive any communication whatsoever after failing to make the last season’s Six Nations squad, having played his part in the autumn internationals of 2013.

“I was a bit disappointed not to be told in person that I’d been dropped after playing so long for Scotland,” says the man whose international career started not one but two World Cups back. “That was a little frustrating. It’s a big disappointment for me because I feel like I am playing well enough to be in the Scotland squad.”

Barclay has earned plaudits for his form at Scarlets, the Welsh press labelled his try-scoring feats against the Ospreys last weekend as “outstanding” and his intelligence shone through on Friday at Scotstoun when his interception and Liam Williams’ finishing earned the Scarlets their only try.

He can glean some hope from Beattie’s own story. The No.8 was a leper, shunned for over a year. Deemed surplus to requirements at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he subsequently spent the whole of the 2012 calendar year twiddling his thumbs on the outside of the international game, like Tiny Tim, with his nose pressed to the glass. A change of coach brought a change of fortune and now Beattie offers hope to his erstwhile colleague.

“I still speak to Johnnie on a regular basis,” says Barclay. “He just tells me to keep playing well and you will get back into the mix. It’s all you can do. I may be the flavour of the month here [at the Scarlets] but they [Scotland selectors] don’t seem to want to know. Look at Kelly [Brown], he was captain and then he wasn’t in the squad. But I’m still young and I feel at 28 years of age I still have plenty left to offer.”

The discarding of all this talent looks a little careless given Scotland’s much-publicised lack of numbers. It could look like a simple necessity of professional sport, old guys make way for younger blood isn’t exactly news, except Scotland have some form in the matter.

Gregor Townsend found himself on the scrapheap aged 30 when Matt Williams took over as Scotland coach and his great rival for the Scotland stand-off shirt, Craig Chalmers, was one year older when he was shown the door. Diego Dominguez was Italy’s best player at 36. Two other international flankers, Ross Rennie (20 caps, 28 years old) and Ally Hogg (48 caps, 31 years old) are keeping Barclay and Brown company in the twilight zone even now. The former was touted by Jim Telfer, no less, for the last Lions tour and the latter sits third on the list of tacklers in the Aviva Premiership this season.

A final word to the man who, just ten months ago, was leading Scotland into the Six Nations. Brown suggests everyone should adopt a different perspective to the “6∫” question that most pundits feel covers both the Scot and the current England captain Chris Robshaw.

“I think that is a commentator’s thing,” say Brown. “Chris [Robshaw] plays seven and he brings a different dimension to the shirt, he plays slightly differently but he thinks of himself as a seven. It is all about blend. I have played more than enough at both six or seven to be comfortable in both and I always try to do my best for the team.

“Yes, I would love a chance to get back into the squad but I’ll have to wait and see. Selection can be a fickle business.”

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