Scotland’s John Barclay urges caution ahead of Italy clash

John Barclay has been around long enough not to pay too much attention to the vicissitudes of modern rugby but having missed the last World Cup – Vern Cotter went instead with fellow Kiwi John Hardie – you might imagine that the Scottish flanker is pretty keen to make the cut for this year’s tournament in Japan, which lies just over the horizon.

John Barclay has been around long enough not to pay too much attention to the vicissitudes of modern rugby but having missed the last World Cup – Vern Cotter went instead with fellow Kiwi John Hardie – you might imagine that the Scottish flanker is pretty keen to make the cut for this year’s tournament in Japan, which lies just over the horizon.

The Achilles heel that he snapped playing for the Scarlets against Glasgow at the tail end of last season is making good progress although, he says a little sardonically, obviously not quite well enough for him to play.

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At least his troublesome ankle has turned a corner or sorts, the flanker says, both literally and metaphorically speaking. He is running on it in straight lines and he is also changing direction which is good news.

After 14 seasons of non-stop professional rugby, will he at some time in the future look back on this break from the game and wonder if it wasn’t, perhaps, a blessing in disguise?

“Aaaaahhhhhh,” Barclay, 32, ponders the question out loud but he is not convinced. “Maybe, when I stop playing, I will think there were some benefits to it in terms of resting my body, mentally and physically, getting to do things I haven’t been able to do like [rest] my shoulders. There are a lot of niggles you have and it is very much putting out fires when you are playing. I feel that, and I think it’s the same with most back rowers, we are just putting out fires. You don’t really get a great chance to let things [injuries] settle down.

“So, from that regard I feel as strong as I have been and now it’s just a matter of getting fit. Surgery doesn’t necessarily make it fixed. I have played something like 300 games, someone told me recently, and my body is obviously not as fresh as it was when I started out.”

No one can argue with that and, if my maths can be trusted, Barclay has played a whopping 337 professional competitive matches, starting the vast majority of them. The breakdown, if you care, is 190 league games, 71 Tests and 66 matches in Europe, almost all in the Champions Cup.

His fire-fighting duties are shared by most players on the park. The fans don’t always recognise the fact but almost every player takes to the field nursing niggles, small injuries that never get a chance to heal because of the relentless treadmill of play, train, recover, repeat.

His last Test came last season against Italy, who Scotland face first up on Saturday. The last time the two teams met on the opening weekend, in 2000, Italy won their first ever Six Nations match and while that was in Rome, Barclay is rightly wary of the threat posed by players starved of success.

“They seem to quite like it,” he concedes when asked about Italy’s record at Murrayfield. “It has been a semi-happy hunting ground for them I suppose.

“We were almost beaten over there [in Rome] last year. I say we almost got beat, we didn’t play very well, I always felt we did enough to win that game.

“Treviso are going pretty well, they knocked off Glasgow pretty comfortably, pretty much a full strength Glasgow team, you don’t ever take anyone lightly. Most guys have played in games where it has not gone well against them so…” and he leaves the warning implicit.

Eddie Jones stated that five teams could win the Six Nations this season and he didn’t have to single out the also rans. However, Scotland must travel to London and Paris where they haven’t won since 1983 and 1999 respectively. If “Fast Eddie” is talking up the opposition for his own ends it wouldn’t be the first time although Barclay, on this occasion, backs the England boss.

“Look at what Conor O’Shea is saying,” he argues, “Italy are not looking to win the tournament, they are just looking to progress. He said they are looking to build towards the World Cup.

“Ireland won the grand slam last season but everyone has knocked each other off over the last few seasons. Ireland are clearly the favourites going into it but if you get on a roll and someone knocks off Ireland and someone slips up then why not [a Scotland win]?

“I don’t really care about those records. It gets brought up all the time. History is history, it just shows how hard it is to win. We went to Paris a couple of years ago and, when you look back, we could have won the game quite easily. We have beaten France at Murrayfield, it seems to me the home team wins right now, between Scotland and France. You look at France and you think why can’t we win that game. Every game Scotland go into they believe they can win. If you have a press conference and say you think we can win this game then you believe we can win the Six Nations.”

Barclay picks last year’s win over England as his Six Nations highlight, partly because of what he refers to as “all that Scotland/England stuff” but mostly because they arrived on the back of an 18-match winning streak. Defeat to Scotland that day knocked that famous chariot right off track and only now it is beginning to build a bit of momentum once again.

The low point is an easy one, Twickenham the year before, when the Scots were walloped, a seven-try shellacking as the men in blue could barely summon the energy to wave the white flag. Can he say now, with the benefit of time, what went wrong on the day?

“I’d say just about everything went wrong,” Barclay replies. “If it could go wrong it did go wrong. It’s an easy one to pick.”

He has been around since 2007 when his first international ever coincided with RWC’07 and fans witnessed a hugely competitive showing against a Kiwi fella by the name of Richie McCaw. Barclay may have got a little slower over the years but he has undoubtedly grown a lot smarter as well and the versatile breakaway’s experience and leadership will be vital to Scotland’s success in Japan…provided that ankle is willing. When, exactly, is he hoping to return to action?

“In weeks,” he replies, “even if you might need the fingers of both hands to count them.”

So before the end of the season?

“Definitely,” Barclay is confident on that front, less so on another. “I just need to break into the Edinburgh team.”