John Barclay aims high after low point of 2015 World Cup snub

John Barclay meets young fans at Scotland's training camp in Inverness earlier this week. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS/SRU
John Barclay meets young fans at Scotland's training camp in Inverness earlier this week. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS/SRU
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From what he admits to being the lowlight of his career, John Barclay could be heading for the high of captaining his country at a Rugby World Cup.

The veteran flanker has experienced the slings and arrows over a decade-and-a-half long career but makes no bones about the fact his failure to be selected for the World Cup squad four years ago made him think that his time playing for Scotland was gone... again!

Barclay had already spent time in the international wilderness following his departure from Glasgow for a five-year spell at Scarlets but he was brought back into the fold by then national head coach Vern Cotter, only to be cast out again when he named his 31-man squad for England 2015.

“I had not been involved for three years so I did think that if I wasn’t picked there I was just going to be turning around,” he recalled of that kick in the teeth.

“I wasn’t trying to be a martyr or anything like that. I’ve said openly it was the single biggest disappointment of my career to not go – to put in all the work and not get picked.

“Someone then got injured, and I still didn’t get picked.”

That was a reference to Cotter’s decision, after already preferring John Hardie to Barclay, to call up Kiwi-born back-rower Blair Cowan as an injury replacement when lock Grant Gilchrist was crocked in the second pool game in Leeds against United States.

“I didn’t really enjoy, or watch, that World Cup. I found it really frustrating individually,” continued the 32-year-old, who if not for that setback would be looking to make a fourth World Cup in Japan later this year.

Barclay was a youngster in the squad for France 2007. Soon to be a member of the “Killer Bs” back-row unit of himself, Kelly Brown and Johnnie Beattie, he made his only appearance in the Frank Hadden “B” team that was whipped 40-0 by the All Blacks in a pool game played at Murrayfield.

“In 2007 I went [to France] but I didn’t really have any idea about international 
rugby. I didn’t really appreciate the situation I was in,” recalled the 71-times capped forward.

“In 2011 [in New Zealand] I went as a starter, knowing I was going to go. Last time I was on the outskirts, so it would be nice to go realising it would be my last one. It would be a 
pretty special way to go.

“I always thought, if you don’t get picked then you retire. I felt the camp had gone well, and I had played really well in the warm-up games.”

Indeed, Barclay had been a try-scoring man of the match in the final warm-up game at home to Italy.

“That added to the frustration, but equally I was always aware I didn’t want to be petulant. Throughout the time I wasn’t picked I didn’t throw the toys out, I just kept my head down. Six months later I was back for the Six Nations and another 12 months later I was 
captain.

“It’s something I actually speak to younger guys about, just how quickly cycles change. One minute you are flavour of the month, the next minute you are not. It’s just about taking a step back and actually looking at the situation, and realising things change very fast.”

That calm, assured focus emanates from Barclay and there was clearly no bad blood with Cotter who, as mentioned, soon had him back in and made him his captain when Greig Laidlaw broke his ankle in Paris during the 2017 Six Nations.

“It was literally about a minute long,” recalled Barclay of the call he got from Cotter to say he’d missed the cut four years ago. “He just phoned, and we knew if you got a phone call it was because you were not in the squad.

“The phone rang, and I was like ‘here we go’. He said he had not picked me, and at that point I was like ‘there is nothing to really talk about Vern’. I couldn’t plead my case, he had chosen his squad so I just said thanks for his time and 
bringing me back and giving me a shot. That was it. It may
be wasn’t even a minute.”

Four years on, Barclay, who recovered from a long-term ruptured Achilles injury to finish the season with new club Edinburgh, is even more of an elder statesman in the squad and mentioned by national coach Gregor Townsend as being, along with Laidlaw and Stuart McInally, a leading contender to be World Cup captain.

Scotland’s preparations for Japan got under way with a training camp in Inverness this week. Townsend mixed things up by splitting the squad into groups and then, as a team-bonding exercise, tasked them with making their way north from Stirling and accomplishing challenges along the way.

“Very well thank you,” said Barclay in that laconic style when asked how he had got on. “No, we got sent on a wild goose chase. We didn’t have instructions and we drove an hour down a single lane to try to find a photo which didn’t exist.

“We were meant to do activities but it was shut, so we had a good trip! I wasn’t claiming responsibility. Ali Price was in charge of directions, Josh Strauss and Allan Dell were there, but I won’t throw them all under the bus. I just took a back seat.

“We were dead last. We basically had to get our mini van, in a group of seven, from Stirling where we started off with a fitness challenge which we came last in.

“We then went in our mini van to get some photos of historical landmarks, such as Rob Roy’s grave in 
Balquhidder.

“Some went up the west coast, but some went up the east. We had to get to Urquhart Castle, but it was shut when we got there because it was so late. We stopped for a chippy in Fort William, and we had to get interviews with some people but nobody wanted to be interviewed. It was good fun, even though we did get a bit lost – we were in the van for eight hours trying to find our way out.

“We got a canoe over Loch Tay – that was the best bit. There were three in one canoe and four in the other.”

It was jocularly put to Barclay that, rather than bonding, this may have led to them hating each other instead. He laughed and said: “Yes, we did! But it was good, we got to Inverness to get a feed, some live music and a few beers.

“It’s just the start I suppose.”

One of many for one of Scottish rugby’s most sanguine yet unyielding characters.