According to the latest official figures, collated by people at the International Rugby Board with too much time on their hands, there are 166,762 senior male rugby players in England. Scotland? They do not have quite so many: around 150,000 fewer, in fact. Yet while the red-rose hierarchy continue to make do and mend in the back-row department – they cannot find a nose-to-the-ground open-side flanker of true international class for love nor money – the Scots have a John Barclay at their disposal. Not to put too fine a point on it, they have the John Barclay, which is even better.
Martin Johnson and company would not admit it in a month of Sundays, but they would kill for a player equipped with the 25-year-old Glasgow breakaway's particular skill-set. The manager certainly remembers Calcutta Cup day in early spring, when Barclay went within a gnat's crotchet of turning England over, both literally and figuratively, and might have completed the job had he not been sent to the sin bin at the tipping point of the contest. Having decided that Steffon Armitage, the former London Irish forward now playing in Toulon, is not quite what the team needs and rejected the claims of the South African-born Hendre Fourie before the start of this tournament, Johnson must now be profoundly anxious at the prospect of a second helping of grief.
"I enjoyed that game at Twickenham," Barclay said yesterday after being confirmed in his country's starting line-up for tomorrow's fascinating pool decider at Eden Park. "You sometimes have afternoons when you feel you're at the very centre of everything and lots of things go right for you. There was the yellow card, of course: that really didn't help. But I thought we came up with a method of testing England that day."
Barclay was first capped at the last World Cup a day before his 21st birthday, against the All Blacks. The Scots did not quite find a way to win that day, but from Barclay's perspective, it was the start of something. Together with his fellow "killer Bs", the blind-side flanker Kelly Brown and the No 8 Johnnie Beattie, he was quick to make a name for himself.
He does not assume Scottish loose-forward superiority over a marginally taller, marginally heavier English unit that goes about its work very differently. Far from it. "Everyone seems to approach the back-row selection differently these days," he said. "Some go with an out-and-out fetcher – a player like myself, I suppose – while others simply pick their best three players and arrange things in a way that suits them. Then there are the teams who go specifically for size. In our last game against Argentina, we were up against a combination of that type. They tend not to play much rugby, concentrating on attacking the breakdown with real ferocity and kicking for position, but fair play: it gets them places."
Much has been said and written about the excruciatingly painful nature of that defeat last weekend – a one-point reverse inflicted when the Pumas scored a sucker-punch try that kept them in the tournament while wrecking Scottish ambitions of securing a quarter-final place with a game to spare. Was Barclay one of those who struggled to rationalise what had happened at the back end of a game he must have thought was pretty much won, or did he take it on his prominent flanker's chin?
"Monday morning was bad," he admitted, "but if I'm being honest, that Six Nations defeat against Wales down in Cardiff in 2010 – another game we were winning until we lost it – felt worse somehow. That stayed with me for a long time. Weeks on end. By comparison, I've recovered from this disappointment pretty quickly. Perhaps it's the World Cup thing, being in a tournament where the next game comes round so quickly. I think the fact that we had to move cities on Tuesday helped. As soon as we arrived here in Auckland, we felt the Argentina thing was parked, once and for all."
The parking attendant-in-chief was Andy Robinson, head coach of the national team since June 2009. Robinson was an open-side specialist himself, in a great Bath club team. Given his instinctive understanding of the demands of the breakaway position, he has been of great value to Barclay.
"It's hard to explain how Andy goes about passing on advice," he said. "There's never a huge debrief: he just points out little things in training in a way that doesn't really register with you at the time. The important thing with him is the mindset thing. When you're working alongside someone as competitive as Andy, it's bound to rub off."
Barclay works every bit as closely with the Scotland captain, the lock Alastair Kellock, a fellow member of the Glasgow pack. Robinson dropped Kellock after the opening scare against Romania and decided against reinstating him for last weekend's meeting with the South Americans.
"Alastair was pretty pissed off," Barclay reported. "He wasn't going around with a smile on his face saying 'this is good', that's for sure. Disappointed, gutted, devastated... he was all of those things. But he's the captain, he knew he couldn't afford to let his feelings affect the rest of us. We're a long way from home, aren't we? If anyone starts thinking 'me' rather than 'we' at a World Cup, we're all in trouble."
They are in trouble anyway, in the sense that defeat tomorrow will mark the end of their campaign and condemn them, harshly, as the worst-performing Scotland team in World Cup history. That sort of thing tends to concentrate the mind. Judging by Barclay's lean and hungry look, they will not go down without a hell of a fight.Reuse content