Barclay has stomach for the fight after rapid rise

Scotland's flanker lost his love for the game but now he's ready for the Welsh

By Simon Turnbull
Sunday 08 February 2009 01:00

Out in the brass-monkey cold in front of the West Stand at Murrayfield, Geoff Cross is pulling his last few smiles for the cameras before being whisked off to talk to the press about his maiden call-up for national service. Back in the warmth of the tunnel, John Barclay gives a wry smile at the thought of his baptism in a Scotland shirt.

So integral has the Glasgow openside flanker become to the Scottish XV that it seems odd to think it was only last season that he made his international debut. That was at Murrayfield in September 2007, for the World Cup pool match against New Zealand. Barclay threw up in the dressing room before he went out with his team-mates for the warm-up. He hurled again when he returned and once more for good luck before heading back out for the kick-off.

So how does he feel now, looking back on that stomach-churning afternoon and looking ahead to the prospect of his eighth game for his country, Scotland's Six Nations opener against Wales at Murrayfield this afternoon?

"That was only a year and a half ago," Barclay says. "I was hoping it wouldn't be like that for every international. I don't think I could cope with that. But I feel a bit more settled. I feel like I've played well for Scotland in a few games now. I just look forward to going out and playing."

What was it, then, about that first game that made him so queasy? Was it a fear of the unknown? A fear of facing the haka? A fear of facing Richie McCaw? All three?

"I think it was just everything," he says. "It was New Zealand. It was Richie McCaw. It was Murrayfield. It was my mum and dad being there, my auntie and uncle, my girlfriend – just the whole thing. The first cap. All of these experiences were firsts for me. To have them all packed into one thing was quite overwhelming."

Not that Barclay was overwhelmed when the whistle blew. With Frank Hadden, Scotland's head coach, saving his first-choice XV for the vital pool decider against Italy, the Caledonian shadow side were beaten40-0. Barclay, though, made his presence felt, executing 21 hits and winning five turnovers on the floor.

That was on the eve of his 21st birthday. Now, five months past his 22nd, Barclay is fast maturing into a flanker of first-class distinction. He produced a towering performance in Scotland's 26-14 victory in the second of their summer Tests in Argentina and something similar in their 14-10 defeat against the Springboks at Murrayfield in November. He was also hugely influential in Glasgow's stunning 33-26 Heineken Cup win in Toulouse three weeks ago.

And yet his international career is still very much in its infancy. Today's game will only be Barclay's third in the Six Nations' Championship. He has yet to play against England or Ireland or Italy.

It might have been different had he not gone on a three-month scholarship to New Zealand after being invited to dip his toes into senior international waters the month after his 18th birthday and finding himself bewilderingly out of his depth.

Barclay had only just left Dollar Academy when Matt Williams, Hadden's predecessor as national head coach, picked him in an extended Scotland squad for the autumn internationals in 2004.

Born in Hong Kong, where his father worked in the petrochemical industry, Barclay recalls the experiencewith a shudder of embarrassment. He confesses to having felt like "a boy among men", which he was, and to having spent most of the time "trying to melt into the background, so I wouldn't be noticed". It took the 12-week trip to Wellington to restore his confidence and love for the game.

"It just gave me a chance to be a bit more relaxed, to play rugby in a less stressful environment," he says. "It got me back to actually enjoying my rugby again, which I hadn't been doing. I had been considering throwing in the towel and going to university and just playing social rugby."

Instead, after returning to Scotland, Barclay chose to serve a rugby apprenticeship with Glasgow, gradually establishing himself as a senior first-team player, then breaking into the national team as a man rather than a boy.

Not that he would claim to be the finished article just yet: the kind of Magnificent Seven he will face at Murrayfield this afternoon. "He's not the biggest of No 7s," he says of Martyn Williams, "but he makes up for it by the way he thinks about the game. One of the smartest players going."

Probable teams for Murrayfield

Scotland: H Southwell; S Webster, B Cairns, G Morrison, S Lamont; P Godman, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross, J White, J Hamilton, A Hogg, J Barclay, S Taylor. Replacements: D Hall, A Dickinson, K Brown, S Gray, C Cusiter, C Paterson, M Evans.

Wales: L Byrne; L Halfpenny, J Roberts, T Shanklin, S Williams; S Jones, M Phillips; G Jenkins, M Rees, A Jones, I Gough, A-W Jones, R Jones (capt), M Williams, A Powell. Replacements: H Bennett, J Yapp, L Charteris, D Jones, D Peel, J Hook, A Bishop.

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