John Barclay attracts not a single glance of recognition as he strolls into the coffee shop. The advertising board outside says the establishment has been "voted the best café in the country". The place is relaxed, unruffled and unpretentious, much like the openside flanker who was voted into the No 7 slot in many pundits' Team of the Autumn Internationals and in most composite XVs of the 2010 Six Nations.
There is no swagger or edge about the 24-year-old whose influence in and around the breakdown will be pivotal to Scotland's prospects of turning the promise of their recent run (just one defeat in seven, and that against the All Blacks) into something substantial in a Six Nations campaign which starts for them in Paris today. Barclay goes about his business on the pitch in much the same way as he does off it: with the minimum of fuss. He tends to steal into vital areas – and steal the ball – without the opposition seeing him coming. Not that he lacks the physical clout to make his presence felt.
On his debut for Scotland, against the All Blacks at Murrayfield in the pool stages of the 2007 World Cup, Barclay executed 21 hits. He also won five turnovers on the floor. It is a standard he has not just maintained but built upon over the course of his 23-cap career. The unassuming Glasgow Warrior is not quite the finished article of openside that his opposite number on his debut day is universally acknowledged to be. But then few specialist No 7s have been quite as magnificent as Richie McCaw.
Barclay has six years and 71 caps to make up on the New Zealand captain, whose shirt he possesses as a souvenir from his international baptism. He was a day short of his 21st birthday that afternoon. He threw up three times in the dressing room beforehand.
Three years and five months on, it is not just Barclay's stomach that has settled. He has become a fixture in a Scotland XV who have been going places under the direction of Andy Robinson, who knows a thing or two about life on the openside flank from his playing days with Bath, England and the British and Irish Lions. Not that Barclay considers himself to be an "established" part of Robinson's team, even after brilliant man-of-the-match performances in the second Test win in Argentina in June that clinched the series and in the 21-17 triumph against South Africa at Murrayfield in November.
"I wouldn't say I feel established," he says. "There are a lot of guys snapping away at my heels. I certainly feel more confident, which is maybe down to the results we've been having and maybe me maturing slightly over the last few years. I do feel comfortable in the Scotland jersey. But that's not to say I feel relaxed about the way I would approach a Scotland game."
Robinson's influence has been clear to see, not just on the shaping of a tightly-disciplined unit but on the mindset of a squad transformed from makeweights into a force with which to be reckoned. Scotland, under the former England head coach, look like a team who go out thinking they can beat anyone if they make it their day – well, anyone except perhaps the All Blacks, who subjected them to a 49-3 spanking at the start of the autumn just gone.
"We got humped by the All Blacks but it didn't change Robbo's belief in the players," Barclay reflects. "We had a bad day; they had a very good day. And he firmly believes that if we play to our best then we can beat anyone. But we don't have the number of players that other countries do and if we don't play to our best, like in the All Blacks game, we can get beaten heavily. Robbo's a winner through and through and the standards that he demands of himself are driven down to the squad. Those standards are a lot higher than we've had before. When I first came into the team, if you lost you were a bit pissed off but then you moved on. Robbo just doesn't accept that. If you're losing, you've got to ask why. The players have that mentality now.
"If you ask any of the back rowers, they'll tell you it's great for us having Robbo as head coach. He does a lot of stuff with us. He sits down with us after every game and goes through each incident with each guy – even though he's probably already watched the tape seven or eight times.
"He's brilliant from my perspective. But he'll also sit down with the centres and offer a lot of insight into what he wants them doing. So he's really involved throughout."
It was the same with Robinson as a player. He worked tirelessly on every facet of his game to try to get past the thoroughbred Peter Winterbottom on to the openside flank in the England pack. He won eight caps.
Has Barclay gone as far as digging out old footage of his boss in openside action? "Yeah, I've seen a few clips of him playing," he replies. "If I'd only known him as a coach that's exactly how I'd imagine him as a player: hard, nuggety and relentless. That's what he's like as a coach."Reuse content