John Barclay made his international debut just over 12 years ago as part of a sacrificial Scotland team sent out against the All Blacks, so that the senior side could be rested ahead of the team’s vital final 2007 World Cup pool match against Italy six days later. However, his association with the senior national team had begun three years earlier when, just after his 18th birthday and only a few months after leaving Dollar Academy, while playing for Glasgow Hawks 2nd XV – he was called into the extended training squad for the 2004 November Test series.
It was a classic piece of showboating by Matt Williams – the cocksure Australian who coached the Scotland side at that time – but also the first real indication to the wider rugby public that a special player was about to arrive on the scene.
Barclay went on to make three appearances off the bench for Glasgow Warriors that season and, by the time the 2007 World Cup had rolled around, he was firmly established as a fixture in the club’s back-row, as part of the formidable “Killer Bs” triumvirate alongside Kelly Brown and Johnnie Beattie.
That debut against New Zealand would have been a daunting challenge for a 21-year-old at the best of times, but even more so on this occasion because so many of the main men were being wrapped in cotton wool, including captain Jason White, second-row enforcer Nathan Hines and Lions tourist Simon Taylor. But Barclay took it all in his stride, emerging from the match with credit against his name – despite the 0-40 scoreline.
His international career was up and running, but it would be wrong to say that he never looked back until yesterday, when he announced that – at the age of 33 and after 76 Scotland caps – he will no longer be putting himself forward to pull on the blue jersey.
There have been more than a few road-bumps along the way, most notably the two years he spent in the international wilderness between November 2013 and August 2015 after falling foul of former SRU Director of Performance Rugby Scott Johnson, pictured above right – who was serving as interim Scotland head coach at the time while Vern Cotter saw out his contract at Clermont. When Cotter finally took over the reins at Scotland in the summer of 2014, he initially continued Barclay’s exile, despite the flanker being in the form of his life at the Scarlets, where he had moved in 2013.
Eventually, the Kiwi coach decided to make up his own mind and called Barclay up for the 2015 World Cup training camp, although he did not include the player in the final 31, which was a particularly bitter pill for him to swallow at the time.
“I was gutted,” Barclay said later. “Devastated. There is no other way to put it. I thought I had put my best foot forward, but I wasn’t wanted. You know how to play the game and if you’re not playing well then that’s that. But I thought I had played well. It was the absolute low point of my career.”
Redemption finally came when he was selected at blindside for the opening game of Scotland’s next Six Nations campaign against England, which started an uninterrupted 26-match run in the team. Barclay took over the captaincy from the injured Greig Laidlaw during the 2017 Six Nations and led the side to their famous victory over Australia in Sydney that summer (and, less joyfully, their defeat to Fiji in Suva the following week).
He continued to captain Scotland during the 2018 Six Nations when they recovered from a catastrophic start in Wales to beat France at Murrayfield, and then claim a sensational Calcutta Cup win over Eddie Jones’ all-conquering England two weeks later, before losing away to Ireland and edging past Italy to claim a better than 50 per cent record in the Championship for the first time since 2006.
Barclay decided to join Edinburgh ahead of the 2018-19 season but an Achilles injury picked up playing for Scarlets in their 2017-18 Pro14 play-off semi-final against old club Glasgow Warriors wiped out almost all of his first season at the capital club.
Barclay returned in time to make Scotland’s squad for the recent World Cup in Japan – his third tournament – but struggled to recapture his pre-injury form, and ended up being one of the senior players dropped after the catastrophic opening weekend defeat to Ireland.
He was given one last run in the jersey in the penultimate pool stage match against Russia – and galloped home for a 40-yard try late in that 61-0 victory to ensure that he at least finished his international career with a bit of a bang.
It was fitting that Barclay should announce his retirement independently through a post on his own Instagram account rather than an SRU-produced press release.
He is not what you would call a born rebel – but he has always known his own mind and deserved to end an excellent international career on his own terms.