Scotland flanker John Barclay talks up Scarlets' hopes
“Finn says stuff and I have to record it,” says Barclay, “and then I send it to [Welsh-speaking Scarlets centre] Scott Williams and ask him what he is saying? And he sends it back and says how to pronounce the words properly. That is the daily battle we have on our hands, trying to understand him!”
Anything to take his mind off the other battle that is looming for Barclay and the Scarlets, who must somehow stop Saracens from breaking Munster’s record of 13 consecutive victories in the European Cup, something a win at Parc Y Scarlets this afternoon will achieve.
After doing the double last season Sarries are on course for the double double this time around, and the fact that Barclay counts Saracens forwards Kelly Brown and Jim Hamilton amongst his closest friends adds a little something to today’s encounter.
The English club will start as favourites but Scarlets are a tough proposition at home, having already bested Toulon in West Wales, so they won’t be intimidated by the reining champions who are short a few key players.
“Like every other team Saracens are beatable – just look what Ireland did to the All Blacks,” Barclay argues. “You just have to look at their weaknesses and we have to play very well.
“When we played down there we attacked not badly, we scored 26 points against them, which no one has done in years, but we defended so poorly. We focus a lot just on ourselves, how we can defend better and improve the areas of that game where we were poor.
“I spoke to Kelly briefly after the first match. He is one of the guys I kept in contact with ever since I left Glasgow and Jim is one of my best mates. We have all been to each other’s weddings and vice versa.”
Scarlets are just one of a number of Guinness Pro12 teams that have enjoyed a revival of fortunes after 2015-16 when the league had zero representation in last season’s last eight of the Champions Cup. Twelve months on, six of the seven Pro12 clubs still harbour mathematical hopes of a quarter-final place even if you wouldn’t want to bet your mortgage on either Scarlets or Ulster making the cut. However, Pro12 clubs should be leading pools 1, 2 and 4 at the close of business tonight if my pools coupon is on the money.
Barclay declares himself bemused by the rollercoaster form of the Pro12 teams. “I don’t necessarily think there is rhyme or reason to why it is like it is,” he says. “I think it’s just the ups and downs of form in whatever competition.”
But he is unequivocal about the need for Scarlets to put in a performance against the tournament favourites this afternoon. “There is a chance, a small chance, of qualifying and anyway we want to win these games, Sarries is a big scalp and it would give us some momentum going back into the Pro12.”
With Scotland’s Six Nations squad due to be named on Wednesday you can be sure that the Pro12 isn’t the only rugby on Barclay’s radar. He was first included in a big Scotland squad at the tender age of 18 and played for Scotland two years later. If it seems that the flanker has been around since the dawn of time it is only because he has, despite being just 30 and hopeful of a long time in the saddle yet. And for all his long experience the Six Nations still stirs the imagination, especially in one who spent two years in the wilderness.
“The Six Nations is special,” Barclay argues. “I missed a couple of years of it and longed to be back involved. It is a really hard competition as well.
“I was speaking to someone down here about our chances and they pointed out that Scotland had improved and enjoyed a good autumn and I said, ‘Yeah, so has everyone else!’
“Sometimes we are in a bit of a bubble where we think we are getting better but every other team is getting better too. It’s tough. Some of the northern hemisphere teams are beating southern hemisphere teams regularly now so it’s getting even harder.
“I really hate it when people refer to Scotland as ‘dark horses’. I hesitate to ever say anything like that after years of disappointment. People always say that and I just find it embarrassing if you say it and then don’t play well, people throw it back in your face.
“There is a really good core of players and quite a bit of competition so I think so, yeah, this is probably the best squad of players I have seen, with the caveat that we haven’t done anything yet.”
What advice would Barclay give to his teenage self?
“Don’t read the papers!”
No journalist will repeat that, try again.
“OK, probably not to worry too much,” he changes tack. “You tend as a youngster to worry too much. You worry about selection or non selection. You just worry. Experience shows you just to worry about things that you can change.
“That and don’t read the papers.”