David Barnes: The shop steward revelling in long hours at coalface

In a rare moment away from the scrum, Bath prop David Barnes tells Chris Hewett how he is putting his back into supporting player welfare
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The Independent Online

If someone wanted to be really harsh about David Barnes, who might reasonably be described as the most improved performer in English rugby despite being 11 years older than Danny "talk-of-the-town" Cipriani, they would accuse him of failing to practise what he preaches. Here is a man who spends a good deal of his time fretting about the welfare of his fellow professionals and warning the people who run this sport that players are being flogged into the dirt, while he himself participates in more rugby games than almost anyone in the Premiership.

Bath played 34 serious competitive matches last season, of which Barnes started 29. Between the beginning of October and the middle of May he missed only two fixtures – neither terribly important, given that the West Countrymen had placed the EDF Energy Cup at the bottom of their priority list. All told, he spent some 2,000 minutes on the field. A mere wing might shrug his shoulders in a "so what?" kind of way, but in the dark and dastardly world of the front-row forward, these statistics are as remarkable as statistics get. Roman galley slaves had an easier time of it.

Barnes is entitled to be proud of his durability. His great friend, club colleague and fellow loose-head prop David Flatman, whose susceptibility to injury means his public appearances are about as frequent as a snow leopard's, is positively green with envy. But durability is a finite resource, even for the lucky ones, and in his other life – Barnes is now in his third term as chairman of the Professional Rugby Players' Association – he works to ensure that the long-term health risks associated with overdosing on rugby are both recognised and addressed.

Barnes' skills as a shop steward are considerable: Lady Thatcher would have had him thrown in the Tower; Lord Tebbit would have ensured he never came out again.

"I do spend a lot of time on PRA business, partly because I enjoy it, but mostly because there are a lot of important issues out there requiring urgent attention," he said this week after being named in Bath's starting line-up – well, there's a surprise – for tomorrow's important Premiership set-to with Saracens at Vicarage Road. "While I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have played so much rugby recently – how could I not feel fortunate, when I see someone like David in all his frustration? – I feel equally strongly that, with top-level rugby becoming so intensely physical and attritional, no player should be expected to play these numbers of games.

"It's in the make-up of all rugby people that they don't like being rested, or rotated, or whatever you want to call it. I'm no different. But there is a growing realisation that, with things moving in the direction they are, someone operating at this level simply cannot play every game on the fixture list. He might think he can, but he can't."

Barnes is 31 now, and he continues to work on a different timescale to the rest of the rugby population.

He first won representative recognition with the England A side a decade ago, when he was playing at Newcastle. He slipped out of the selectors' thoughts in the years that followed, only to resurface a couple of seasons back with the England Saxons – the self-same second string, trading under a different name. When the latest Saxons squad was announced earlier this month, he found himself elbowed aside by two younger loose-head specialists, Alex Clarke of Bristol and Nick Wood of Gloucester. Yet he continues to do his thing, serene in the hope that he will be back again; indeed, that he might even win a full cap one day.

"I don't expect it to happen, of course, but when I look at someone like Perry Freshwater coming through pretty late to make the World Cup, or see Mark Regan doing the things he's doing in his mid-thirties, I do wonder whether there might be an outside chance," he said.

"I feel I'm playing decent rugby – better than I've played for a long time – and when you come down to it, performance is all that matters. I know it's a long shot, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't give it my best."

When he first arrived at the Recreation Ground in 2000, it was difficult to know exactly what he amounted to at the top end of the club game. He had been taught well: Nick Popplewell, the Irishman who propped the Lions' scrum in New Zealand in 1993, had been the senior citizen at Newcastle; and on joining Harlequins, Barnes found himself understudying Jason Leonard, who was "wonderfully approachable and taught me all the tricks of the trade with such generosity of spirit that I can't speak highly enough of him".

Quins were not willing to put Barnes on a long-term deal, however. Bath's offer of a three-year contract was something of a lifesaver, even though it carried a significant cut in pay.

For a while, he laboured hard at the coalface without much recognition. He was not a peripheral figure, exactly, but he was not at the centre of things either. Then, in his late twenties, his standards improved dramatically. Over the last three or four seasons, his contribution has at least matched that of his fellow grunt-and-groaners in the best tight unit in England: Lee Mears and Matt Stevens, Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick. Along with Borthwick, another close friend, he has also made it his business to speak honestly and authoritatively about the situation in which the club finds itself, 10 years or so after the sun set on their golden era.

At the end of last season, both he and Borthwick, who will join Saracens at the end of the season in a highly sensitive move that has caused Richter-scale ructions at the Rec, openly criticised the Bath management for their lack of ambition. It was a bold move, but it paid dividends, even though Borthwick, stripped of the captaincy, might now suspect he is paying a price for his insubordination.

"I think Steve and I were coming from the same place when we said the things we did," Barnes said. "We all had our concerns at that point. This is a great club and I love it dearly; when I first arrived, I looked around me and saw the Iain Balshaws, the Mike Tindalls, the Matt Perrys and I thought: 'There is unlimited promise here. Anything and everything is achievable.' For a while, there was a feeling that the potential wasn't being realised, for a number of reasons. But I sense now that we've taken a big step forward. Good players have been signed, good rugby is being played. We're sending out the right messages, getting the right results. If what was said last season has played any part in changing the mood here, great."

The task now is to generate change on a bigger scale, which is where his work with the PRA comes in. "I don't think I could go back to simply training for, and thinking about, a game of rugby on a Saturday," he said, "and I'd like to think I'll stay involved when I stop playing.

"What are the major issues? Everything revolves around player welfare, in two distinct areas – health on the one hand, education on the other – that in reality are closely connected.

"This is a young professional sport and we're learning as we go along, but we've reached a stage where it's not enough for the Rugby Football Union and Premier Rugby Ltd to say that they have welfare at the top of their agendas. They have to start acting as though it's at the top by implementing some of the many recommendations put forward by people who have studied the effects the game has on the people who play it for a living. On average, every year one player from each Premiership club is forced into retirement by serious injury. It's a fact, and it's a problem.

"In addition, we know there will be a lot of people suffering difficulties with osteoarthritis when they get to their forties, directly as a result of playing rugby. We set up a benevolent fund eight years ago and we're pleased with the way it has developed, but one day soon, that fund is going to be under one hell of a strain.

"In addition, we're trying to make the right moves in terms of helping people prepare for life after rugby. The traditional image of the top-class player coming from a middle-class, university background no longer has any relevance: many young players join clubs straight from school and have no idea what they might do if they found themselves in the big wide world. In New Zealand, they take this seriously: every provincial side has a player-development manager. Here, we have three careers and education advisers for 12 Premiership clubs. We've been talking about employing a fourth for a year, but the RFU and PRL have just told us they won't give us the funding. It's incredibly frustrating."

In the front row, a man who fails to listen to reason is likely to get a slap. In the boardroom, things work differently. "All we can do is keep talking, in the hope that if the people who make the decisions are made to see the facts and understand their implications, they'll come on board," Barnes said. If his debating skills are half as persuasive as his recent performances on the field, there is at least a chance of the penny dropping.