Almost everyone has written off Scarlets who must travel to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium to play the European Champions Cup favourites in Saturday’s semi-final.
The bookies have Leinster as cup winners, most pundits and everyone outside of West Wales agree but people have short memories.
Scarlets have already won a semi-final in Dublin, the Pro12 last-four clash last season, when they not only beat Leinster but they did so with 14 men in the second half after winger Steff Evans saw red just before the break.
That match was at the RDS, but Scarlets returned to the Aviva for the final where they ran in six tries against Munster playing some sublime rugby and, with Ken Owens injured, John Barclay captained the club on both occasions.
The Scot remembers those weeks fondly but, I put it to the flanker, his club’s success owes as much to their defensive resilience as any brilliance with the ball in hand?
“Our attack gets a lot of attention but our defence has been built upon,” Barclay replies. “Last year we had the second best defensive record and this year it’s something similar. I think defensively we’ve been growing and we’ve got players who are very good over the ball.
“In attack we are lucky in that, even when we don’t function that well, we have guys who are capable of scoring tries out of nothing. We have guys like Gareth Davies who knows his way to the try line and runs very good support lines. It’s something that [attack coach] Steve Jones is huge on, skill execution, we practise it all the time.”
Scarlets have timed their run to perfection having taken the path less travelled to the European semi after losing their first two pool matches.
Toulon beat them by a point in the south of France and then Bath visited Parc y Scarlets where Rhys Priestland put the boot in to his former club with six penalties. Barclay, 31, missed the opening two rounds and, presumably, sat in the stand, ruing another lost opportunity in Europe?
“Yeah, to an extent,” he cautions. “But without being disrespectful to Treviso we’d seen in the first two rounds that the other two teams hadn’t got bonus points off the Italians. We thought we’d missed a big opportunity but we’d picked up two losing bonus points. It was more the home game against Treviso when we thought we’d messed things up. We were 75/76 minutes before we scored [the fourth bonus point try]. That says a lot about the culture and this group of guys, they keep going and they keep going. That is the difference in the team since I arrived, there’s a lot more belief in the group which comes from winning.”
But belief alone won’t beat Leinster.
“Our defence is going to have to be good,” Barclay replies. “I think they have the most bonus point wins in the league. We are going to have to be at our best. Their track record in Europe is fantastic. We have to do what we have been doing and perform better than we have all season.”
If Scarlets have grown in stature this season much of the credit goes to coach Wayne Pivac. On the Kiwi’s watch Scarlets have added some forward firepower, defensive solidity and get-the-job-done grit to their traditional all-court attacking game.
Pivac is central to the Scarlets’ renaissance and he is widely touted as Warren Gatland’s successor after next year’s Rugby World Cup. Both men are Kiwis but only one has the vision and imagination to coach the way Wales are expected to play. Gatland borrowed so heavily from Pivac during the Six Nations, and not just the ten Scarlets players, that he was lucky to escape copyright charges.
“As a coach, as a man manager, as a man, he’s been great for the club and for me personally,” says Barclay of Pivac. “If he went to Wales I am sure he’d do a good job, he’s a good man and it would be Scarlets’ loss...I don’t know anything about coaching but he’s done a good job with Scarlets.”
Those last words may come back to haunt Barclay since coaching is where he is headed when he is done playing. But first he has business to attend to in Dublin before joining Edinburgh in the summer. What on earth did Richard Cockerill promise him in return for his signature?
“He promised that I could be mayor of Edinburgh,” Barclay deadpans. “To be honest it was almost the flip of a coin at the end. We went back and forth. I’ve said this a couple of times, if I had stayed at Scarlets I would have stayed for a long, long time and integrated into the culture.
“It was just the chance to come back and play for the city we always envisaged as home. You can’t look into the future but I believe in what Richard Cockerill is trying to do. I am genuinely really excited to come back and play at home because of my family and being back in Scotland again.”
Scarlets lost Liam Williams last summer, Irish lock Tadhg Beirne and Barclay leave at the end of this season and Pivac must surely replace Gatland next year. Edinburgh are on the up and it is just possible that Barclay has timed this one to perfection.