John Barclay: My focus is leading Scotland not Lions talk

John Barclay is a sanguine character who takes the slings and arrows of fortune that can afflict any sporting career with a calm sense of proportion and he was his usual serene self as he joined the Scotland squad at St Andrews this week.

John Barclay celebrates with team-mates after Scarlets' victory over Munster in the  Guinness Pro12 final in Dublin.
John Barclay celebrates with team-mates after Scarlets' victory over Munster in the Guinness Pro12 final in Dublin.

The tour captain, continuing in the role he assumed when Greig Laidlaw was injured in the Six Nations before being called into the Lions squad, skippered his Welsh club, Scarlets, to Guinness Pro12 glory at the weekend and was still clearly basking in that triumph but has quickly switched his focus to leading Scotland on a successful three-Test summer trip.

Injuries could see him pulled into the Lions squad at some point in the next month or so but Barclay insists that prospect has not been spoken about by himself or any other of the Scots who were deemed to be unlucky to miss out on initial selection by Warren Gatland.

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“I don’t think many people would turn down the Lions,” he did concede. “But It’s all over the place on Twitter at the moment. It [potential Lions call-up] is the sort of thing you take as it comes, and it would be really exciting but it’s a huge honour to captain Scotland, so I’m certainly not taking my eye off the ball.”

In the past year Barclay has rocketed to 60 caps, taken on the temporary captaincy of a Scotland team on the up and got his hand on silverware with his club. 
However, the experience of being cast into the Test wilderness by Scotland, including a four-year gap between Six Nations appearances, keeps him grounded and determined to savour 
every moment.

That superb 46-22 win over Munster in Dublin at the weekend gave the Llanelli-based Scarlets, who 
Barclay joined from Glasgow four years ago, only their second ever Pro12 title and a first for 13 years. After a long, hard season, the thrill of success has kept the 30-year-old fresh.

“Yeah, feeling good, the body’s good,” he said. “To still be playing at this point of the season and keep my match fitness is pleasing. And to come off the back of the season having won something is good.

“I kept in contact with [new Scotland head coach] Gregor [Townsend] through the past two weeks of camp but he made it clear he wanted me to focus on Scarlets. We have a good relationship and there are a lot of guys still here from the Six Nations leadership group. Jonny [Gray] leading the lineout and Finn [Russell] leading the attack. It’s not just me and Gregor, it’s about a group.”

Barclay worked under Townsend for a year at Glasgow before making the move to Wales.

“There was no ill-feeling when I left Glasgow,” he stressed. “Whenever we’ve played Glasgow, I’ve always spoken to Gregor and had a beer, and he’s always kept in contact by texting me before games and after them to wish me luck or say hard lines, so it’s not like we didn’t speak after I left.

“I was hugely impressed by Gregor as a coach, particularly as he was a relatively new coach – I was impressed by his ideas and his enthusiasm, which was infectious.

“You can see what he’s done with Glasgow. He’s pushed them up there very well. He’s probably developed as a coach but he has that same enthusiasm that I saw when he started at Glasgow.

“He phoned me to say I’d be in the squad and then after Greig was called up [to the Lions] he asked me whether I’d like to do it [the captaincy] and I was obviously very, very happy to do so.”

Townsend’s ascension to the top job means a Scot is once again in charge of the national team for the first time since Frank Hadden
departed in 2009 and was followed by 
Englishman Andy Robinson, Aussie Scott Johnson and the New Zealander Vern 

Not that Barclay makes too much of that factor.

“As a player it doesn’t bother me. You just want to do well,” said the skipper. “The guys had a lot of respect for Vern and by the end I guess Vern was an adopted Scot – you see the reception he got when he left. You want a coach to be motivated and driven and to be fair on you, and I think Vern was all those things, and I think Gregor is too.

Scotland face Italy in Singapore a week on Saturday before subsequent Tests in Australia and Fiji. Barclay was born in Hong Kong and is looking forward to leading his country back to the region of his birth – “my brother was born in Singapore and we grew up all around there”.

All three games, have their challenges and attractions but, on paper, it is the clash with the Wallabies in Sydney that forms the 
centrepiece of the tour.

“The last time we played in Australia [a shock 9-6 win in rainswept Newcastle, New South Wales] it was atypical weather and more like playing back at home,” recalled Barclay.

“I didn’t play in the 2015 World Cup game [a dramatic 35-34 quarter-final loss at Twickenham] and watched that one from home, while the game in the autumn [a 23-22 loss at BT Murrayfield] was hugely frustrating.

“We can take some confidence going down there from the knowledge that, if we play well, and play with speed, energy and accuracy, that we can compete.”