Stuart Barnes: The voice of rugby says 'I've watched every minute of every match'

The former Bath and England fly-half finds it hard as an ex-player criticising a lack of skill in the game.
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Fancy owning a racehorse? Stuart Barnes has one going cheap. He says he will sell Maldoun, a five-year-old hurdler, for "a couple of hundred quid". The gelding, trained by Martin Pipe, once won a race at Kelso, but Barnes describes him as a "bloody donkey" and wants rid. "The problem with Maldoun is he's too nice a character. He's got no edge."

The same cannot be said of Barnes. We are sitting in a rustic bar called Jack Stamp's Beer Hall off Chiswick High Road and, of course, Manchester United are playing on the small screens above the spit and sawdust. "TV is so intrusive," Barnes complains. He was reminded that the intruder, Sky, was his employer. "I'm merely the messenger," he said.

With the retirement from broadcasting of Bill McLaren, it could be argued that Barnes, via satellite, rather than the BBC, has become the Voice of Rugby. He's in his 10th year with Sky and will spend the next three weekends at Twickenham commentating on England's autumn internationals. It's surprising that Barnes hasn't had an approach from the Beeb although he says he wouldn't be interested for all the cider in Somerset.

"There are not that many ex-sports people who are treated like a proper broadcaster rather than a novice chaser. I'm part of a very good team and it's a fantastic place to work. Not everybody likes Sky and I understand the arguments between satellite and terrestrial TV but our department is full of people who are aggressively dedicated. It's like being back at Bath."

Barnes almost goes misty-eyed at the thought of being back at the Rec where, in the 80s and early 90s, he was the flyhalf of the most ruthless club in the land. Jack Rowell coached them to win everything. "We were terrible people," Barnes said. "We were obsessed with winning and we would do anything to achieve it. We were a weird ensemble. Jack was as strange as they come, but what we had in common was loyalty and an incredible desire. We were all in it together. There was no hierarchy, no players' bar. We would drink with anybody."

Barnes still does. He begins by ordering a white wine and soda on account that the gout in his left foot (he says he inherited the condition from his father) is flaring up something rotten. Gout likes beer but Barnes likes it better and he soon switches to a pint. Apart from his big toe being attacked by deposits of uric acid, he is in good form, having had less than two hours sleep. He stayed up until 5am watching the American election and was in the Sky studios by 7am.

"I'm probably the only person in the country who's watched every minute of every match in the Zurich Premiership. It doesn't mean I'm right about everything, but at least I have the knowledge. When I commented that Jonny Wilkinson wasn't playing well, the point is I had seen him more often than the England coaches. It's coalface stuff but not everybody does it. I love it when I watch people on TV who think they're stars and take themselves more seriously than the players."

Barnes, who describes himself as a republican, although not in the George W Bush sense, is a popular figure with supporters (he will shortly give up his column in the Daily Telegraph to write for the Sunday Times). But it wasn't always the case. He is not unaccustomed to the term Judas. When his father John was sales manager of a packaging firm, he moved the family from Purfleet in Essex to Newport in Gwent. "My dream was to play for Arsenal. Although I was small as a striker, I scored bucketloads of goals. I was fit, quick, strong and bloody aggressive and I had a tremendous boot."

All of which were recognised, not by Arsenal or Cardiff City, for whom he had a trial, but by his new school in Wales, Bassaleg Comprehensive. "There was no soccer, so I didn't want to go there. They told me I had to play rugby. I was a stroppy little shit and I said I wasn't going to do it. The first moment I touched a rugby ball I bloody adored it. I actually quite liked the violence. The coaches were brilliant. What they taught me still influences me. Now I feel like a pedantic old English teacher banging on about how important it is to get the basics right. Sometimes it's hard being an ex-player talking about a desperate lack of skill in the modern game. Weight training? A skilful player will always beat a very strong bloke who can't play rugby."

Once Barnes discovered he could play it like a natural, he became an adopted son of Wales. He captained Welsh Schools Under-15s and Under-19s and for four years didn't miss a schools international. By then he was already a member of the Newport club and advanced so rapidly he was chosen for the Welsh national squad. "I wanted to be like Gerald Davies, with the collar up, like so." And then the RFU started to ask questions about his eligibility. "I had great affection for Wales, but the fact is, I had no Welsh blood. Although I don't have a patriotic bone in my body, I was the only person at Bassaleg who supported England. I decided to stay with my roots and I received my first bad press. I was regarded as officially Welsh and there was all this bullshit about turning my back on Wales. I was born in bloody Essex."

Like John Redwood he never knew the Welsh national anthem. Barnes went from Bassaleg to Oxford University to study history. "I was quite bright and I had a lucky entrance exam. Comprehensive kids were at a disadvantage because the public schoolboys were trained to be confident. I wasn't phased or intimidated. I bullshitted quite well and I felt I'd achieved something." He played in three Varsity matches and emerged with a third in his chosen subject. "My biggest regret is not doing myself credit. I was 18 and acting like a big kid. I used to rush through my essays to get to the curry house or the Bear Inn."

Although wishing he had spent more time in the Bodleian Library than the Bear, Barnes's rugby career gained a higher profile in England when he switched from Newport to Bristol, helping the West Country club to victory in what was then the John Player Cup in 1982 and Gloucestershire to the County Championship.

The following year, it was stated that Barnes was unavailable for England's tour of South Africa because of exams. Not so. In those days it was politically incorrect to mix politics with sport, but Barnes was a conscientious objector on the grounds of apartheid. His international career continued to be interrupted for a number of reasons, some self-inflicted (he quit the scene several times) or injury (early on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 1993 his team-mate Robert Jones put a boot through Barnes's temple) or sheer boredom.

The result is that one of the country's most gifted footballers won, between 1984 and 1993, a total of only 10 caps and for World Cups and Lions tours he was a spectator, watching Rob Andrew enjoy the limelight. "International rugby never fired me," Barnes said. He was disillusioned from the start. While at Oxford he got a tip-off that he was going to be the next England fly-half. "In those days the team was announced on Rugby Special. I was expecting to dash around my college like something out of Chariots Of Fire. I watched TV in the junior common room and when they read out the name of Les Cusworth where mine should have been it was a crushing disappointment." He can't remember a thing about his Test debut but can't forget some of his cup final appearances. Before joining Bath he had a chance in 1983 to kick Bristol to a famous victory. Bath were leading 10-9. "Bristol won a penalty, it was the last kick of the game and it never entered my mind that I would miss. As it left my boot I thought 'Shit, let me have that again'. It was the only time I ever cried."

Roger Spurrell, the Bath flanker, put an arm around Barnes and said: "Never mind, you're welcome to come back to the West Country on our bus." Barnes enjoyed many journeys with Bath to Twickenham but not the 1992 final against Harlequins. The score was 12-12 in the final minute of extra time when Barnes dropped a long-range goal to win the cup. "I got all the headlines and Andy Robinson, our captain, gave me a big hug, but I was complete garbage. I was played into a corner by Peter Winterbottom and I couldn't get out. My body was falling to pieces. I'd come full circle."

A building society manager with the Stroud and Gloucester in Swindon, Barnes was asked by Sky to do a screen test. "It was time for a gamble. I didn't know what Sky was or even that they did rugby. When I read the autocue it came out as a murderously dull monologue."

Barnes, who will be 42 this month, has been part of the Sky team since 1994. The only time he misses The Rugby Club, the channel's magazine programme, is for a week every March when he goes to the Cheltenham Festival, always as a punter to inflict or receive substantial damage in the betting ring, sometimes as an owner. Maldoun has cost him money, but he has another, Idaho d'Ox, that has won him plenty.

Barnes has written three books and one of them was runner-up in the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. His prize was £300 which he invested with the sponsors on Istabraq to win the Champion Hurdle, which, of course, it did. In his own words, Barnes is an ageing, overweight, lazy, gout-ridden hippy, whose two all-time heroes are Bob Dylan and Istabraq. At a push, you can have Maldoun for nothing.

Biography

Stuart Barnes

Born: 22 November 1962 in Grays, Essex.

Height: 5ft 6in.

As a player: International: fly-half who represented Welsh Schools XV. Went on to win 10 caps for England between 1984 and 1993. Scored 34 points (seven penalties, five conversions, one drop goal). Toured to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 1993 without playing a Test.

Club level: played briefly at Newport and Bristol before he joined Bath, where he enjoyed his major success, winning five league titles and six cup finals. Played in three Varsity Matches for Oxford University.

These days: an analyst on The Rugby Club and commentator for Sky Sports.

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