Six Nations: Captain John Barclay keeping it real ahead of opener

With the Six Nations looming large in the headlights, you would be forgiven for thinking that Scotland captain John Barclay was beginning to feel the pressure. But you'd be wrong. Or to be more accurate, if he is stressed, it has little enough to do with the upcoming championship.
Scotland's flanker John Barclay celebrates scoring a try during the autumn international rugby union test match between Scotland and Australia. Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/GettyScotland's flanker John Barclay celebrates scoring a try during the autumn international rugby union test match between Scotland and Australia. Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty
Scotland's flanker John Barclay celebrates scoring a try during the autumn international rugby union test match between Scotland and Australia. Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty

His wife Hayley gave birth to their third child Max about one month ago and, from the background noise coming down the telephone wire from Wales, much of the flanker’s time, effort and energy is taken up with the new arrival. He is probably looking forward to Scotland camp if only to catch up with some sleep. “The kids keep you busy enough so you don’t have time to worry about rugby,” is how he puts it.

Barclay has been around the block and more than once. Despite being 31, he was first selected in a Scotland squad 14 long years ago. Between then and now Barclay has seen plenty of success and his fair share of failure. Cold shouldered for several years and now elevated to Scotland captain, he was not going to slit his wrists while overlooked and he isn’t about to buy into all the hype now he is back at the top of the game.

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If any further perspective was required in addition to his young, fast-growing family, another incident at the opposite end of the life cycle keeps Barclay grounded.

Three years ago his school coach John Foster died after a one-sided battle with Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a rare wasting disease. The Dollar Academy coach had been so much more to a young Barclay – mentor, friend, house master and paterfamilias – that the flanker gifted him one of his very first Scotland shirts. He still gets a text from “John Foster” after a big game as Barclay explains.

“I get a little bit goose-bumpy talking about him,” says the flanker. “It’s funny actually, when he passed away his wife Joan must have taken over his phone because I normally get a message from her after a game saying “Well done John” and in the last couple of games she texted that John (Foster) would have been very proud of what you are achieving.

“I always text her back and because of that, and because of how important he was in my career, I always think of him in the week of a game. After a game on one occasion me, Graeme (Morrison) and Rory (Lawson) phoned him on nights out in Argentina and he was always happy to speak to us. He is never far away from my thoughts after a game.”

So the message on your phone still says, ‘John Foster’?

“It does. I should probably change it but I’ve just left it. It’s a weird one. It still says ‘John Foster’. It is always nice to speak about John.”

If Glasgow’s victory against Exeter last weekend gives several Scotland stars a fillip then Barclay must come into camp walking on air. In the last two weekends of action the Scarlets team that the Scot led to the Pro14 title last season have beaten Bath at the Rec and French giants Toulon at Parc Y Scarlets to book their place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

And if Toulon turned into an arm wrestle, the game the Scarlets used to beat Bath was played with the sort of pace, accuracy and intensity that were a handy imitation of what Gregor Townsend is attempting with Scotland. At one point in the first half Barclay was correctly yellow carded.

“We did it in hard circumstances because I got sin binned and in that time we scored 14 points. That’s pretty special.”

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Perhaps, I suggest cheekily, that tells us something about the flanker’s effect on his club? “That I inspire the team?” Barclay shoots back.

Inspirational or not, Barclay talks about his style of captaincy , the importance of doing rather than just talking because words alone are “hollow”, to use his expression. He talks of how he would never ask anyone to do anything he is not prepared to do himself. It seems to work because Scotland have won four of the six matches when Barclay has captained the side under Townsend.

But the stats also tell us that while Barclay has won 48 per cent of all his international matches, the flanker has tasted success in just 27 per cent of his Six Nations Tests.

It has been an recurrent theme for Scotland who often show signs of life in November only to come badly unstuck in February when the friendlies are over and the day job starts in earnest.

“I will always go in with a little caution because I have seen a few false dawns,” says Barclay. “It is easy to get carried away and people are always very keen to throw mud in your face if things don’t go to plan.

“I think we have some good players. We played a good brand of rugby in the autumn, but I said at the time that we don’t get any Six Nations points for beating Australia or running the All Blacks close.

“Every other team is doing well. England are not doing too bad, Ireland are going well, Wales always play well in the Six Nations and you don’t know what France are going to do. It’s a hard competition. It’s always hard, but I think if we play like we did in the autumn there is a bit of hope there.”

And Cardiff is looking like the key to the whole series. Win there and self-belief floods into this pool of players. Lose and Scotland start looking nervously at the Italians!

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“Yeah but the whole competition isn’t won and lost in a day, although momentum is important,” Barclay cautions. “People saying that we’ll be favourites going down to Cardiff, which I find hilarious. I can’t remember the last time we won down there. We will go with a bit of confidence, but it’s going to be a hard game.”

The funny thing with sport is that everyone remembers the last game, when Scotland crushed the Wallabies, and forgets the Samoan match when a scratch island side, short on stardust, scored four tries at Murrayfield. Had the autumn fixtures fallen back-to-front we would all be biting our nails, but the veteran Scotland skipper has been around far too long not to take a balanced perspective on the whole shebang.

“I’m relaxed in what I am doing and in who I am in rugby, but also sort of fiercely driven to do well and very proud of being captain of Scotland,” he says.

“I know it’s a big opportunity for us if we play well but I also know how hard the competition is and how good the other teams are, so it will be a tough few weeks but I am really looking forward to it.”