Barclay challenging the Irish defence

How did you spend your 25th birthday? Did you have a party, or a fun day out, or maybe you just went to the pub? I’m sure I did. John Barclay won’t be making merry. Instead, he hopes to be preparing for one of the biggest games of his life as he hits the quarter-century on 24 September – the day before Scotland meet Argentina in the World Cup.

But having a birthday overshadowed by a rugby match is nothing new to the openside. Indeed, his 21st birthday fell the day after his Test debut for Scotland, during the last World Cup, so he was more concerned about recovering from the 40-0 defeat by the All Blacks than blowing out his candles. And if Scotland can beat Argentina next month it will set them on course for a place in the World Cup quarter-finals, and who could ask for a better present than that?

Barclay’s plans for his birthday pan out like this: “There will be a captain’s run and then you have to relax for most of the day, just chilling out with your feet up,” he says. “I like to wander out for a coffee with some of the lads. There won’t be too many beers!”

When Scotland’s squad for the 2007 World Cup was named, Barclay was the only uncapped player. An outstanding age-group flanker who had been training with the national squad since just before his 18th birthday, he was delighted to be included, but had mixed feelings after the tournament.

“It was incredible to experience a World Cup, especially in France where they really embraced the tournament and the crowds were great for every game,” he says. “Yet I ended up feeling frustrated because I was away for a long time and only played one game. People forget how long you spend preparing for a World Cup too. We had a countdown clock on the wall of the gym and when I first went in there I think it was two months to go before the tournament. But I had to remember I was lucky to be in that position and there were other players who were desperate to be where I was.”

Ally Hogg was the first-choice openside back then but Barclay got a start when the then Scotland coach, Frank Hadden, controversially rested many front-line players for a pool game against the All Blacks, preferring to concentrate on beating Italy to secure the runners-up spot in the pool. “There were mixed emotions for my first cap because it was great to get it but we were beaten by 40 points,” says Barclay. “The papers were saying it was disgraceful to put out such a side against the All Blacks. I was disappointed that the Italy game seemed like the be-all and end-all of our tournament. We were so focused on beating Italy that we then missed a chance to win the quarter-final.”

Barclay has come a long, long way since then. He has started every Scotland Test since the end of November 2009 and put in Man of the Match-winning performances against Argentina last summer and South Africa last November. “It certainly seems like a long time ago that I got my first cap,” he says. “I’ve matured and I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t a far better player now. Physically I’m in a lot better shape. The way rugby is played has changed too, with the new law interpretations.”

This will not be Barclay’s first trip to New Zealand, as he spent a few months there in 2005 on a Scottish scholarship programme, playing with the Marist St Pats club in Wellington and the Wellington Academy. “The trip was a real eye-opener to what a huge deal rugby is over there,” he says. “I was there when the Lions were there and 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all anyone was talking about in the pubs and shops was rugby. The adverts on the cereal packets all have rugby players in them. They are real superstars. Playing club rugby and being involved in the Wellington Academy I could see the numbers they have, and the quality they have in reserve is frightening at times.

“It’s a rugby-crazy country so if I get the chance to be in that environment again and go back four years after winning my first cap against New Zealand, that would be an incredible experience.”

Barclay hopes the many Kiwis with Scottish connections will turn out to support Andy Robinson’s side as they battle with England, Argentina, Georgia and Romania for the two quarter-final spots from Pool B. “As a bare minimum our aim would be to get into the quarter-finals and then re-evaluate the situation,” he says.

First Scotland have two warm-up games at Murrayfield, against Ireland on 6 August and Italy on 20 August. As one of the players Robinson withdrew from club rugby in April and May to help their World Cup preparations, Barclay is itching to play again.

“It was exciting just to get back into contact work in training during July,” he says. “Warm-up games are billed as friendlies but when people have been training in the gym for a couple of months and then get out onto a pitch it can be pretty brutal! Every team will want to win and players will want to put their hand up for selection.”

So as well as opponents, Barclay’s rivals within the Scotland squad had better be on their guard.

This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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