Here’s what happened when we went on tour with one of the game’s most beloved sides, the Barbarians. This feature first appeared in the January 2017 issue of the magazine.
STANDING AT the mouth of a tunnel that slopes down towards Marketa Stadium’s pitch – a postage stamp of grass in the middle of a speedway track, teased towards looking like a rugby field for the first time in its existence – Barbarians coach Robbie Deans looks ecstatic.
The world’s most famous invitational club side are in Prague on a goodwill mission, helping the locals celebrate the 90th birthday of the Czech Republic union. Despite losing 71-0 and with a crucial European fixture against Lithuania mere days away, the Czechs are just as happy as the Kiwi coach. Filing into the Barbarians changing rooms to swap shirts, dodging a gauntlet of proffered pints and cigars, they have the air of men crushed merrily by all the things in life they have ever wanted.
The Baa-Baas are only a few days past a bewitching 31-31 draw with South Africa at Wembley, in which two tries, scored by tour captain Andy Ellis and Aussie wing Luke Morahan, should be stitched into the folklore of the famous club forever. The party are now looking ahead to a game in Belfast two days later, against Fiji. No one looks fazed.
“This game is perfect (in a busy schedule), that’s why I chose it,” a grinning Deans tells Rugby World. “I’d rather play and do something for the game, which is what we’ve done here. The Czechs are buzzing. They absolutely loved it. They did some good things.”
This was so much more than just a kick-around for the hosts. This was the first Czech match shown live on national (state) television. The day before, the Barbarians gave up an hour to coach some children, helped by Jan Machácek – an ex-Sale and Pontypridd back-row who’s the only man from the Czech Republic to represent the Barbarians. And the Barbarians Trust has just given more than 150,000 Czech koruna (approximately £5,000) to help their game. What does that say about the club? Deans reflects.
“The Barbarians are the gatekeepers of the soul of the game. They encapsulate everything that’s good about the game – playing for the love of the game. While it’s professional, if money is the determining factor in the way you take to your work then it’s all over. The point of difference in teams that succeed is actually the teamwork, playing for the pure reasons. The same reasons that always motivated blokes before there was ever money in the game. It’s often missed but it’s great for these guys to be exposed to that ethos again, as a reminder of what it’s all about.”
“the Barbarians are gatekeepers of the soul of the game”
HAVING SPENT time with the Barbarians, this article cannot urge you to forget everything you know about the Baa-Baas. There are many traditions alive and well. Instead, this piece puts forth a plea to supplement what you know about those who pull on the black and white. As Australia tighthead Paddy Ryan eloquently puts it: “People from the outside think we do it because we like smacking p**s (drinking) – and for a lot of guys that is true – but it’s not the main thing that drives a good group.”
In the past the Barbarians have got it right and they have got it wrong. In 2010 a star-packed side beat South Africa at Twickenham, 26-20. It was a celebration of all the joy of the invitational side that brought us the ‘Greatest Try of All Time’ against the All Blacks in 1973. But those who have been part of the back-room team for a while still cringe at the thought of the humbling by the 2013 Lions in Hong Kong – a perfect storm of veterans enjoying themselves too much, harsh humidity and a foe so fired up at the start of a tour nothing could douse them. They lost 59-8 and many swore: “Never again.”
On this tour is Steve Berrick, the man who assumes all the risk in underwriting Barbarians events, from stadium hire to contracting players. While part of his gig is doing deals with unions, there is a glimmering silver lining ahead, with England an established regular opponent and designs for a tour to Japan or South Africa in the summer, amongst others.
It was also Berrick who negotiated with the agents of the young group in Prague. There’s a buzz in camp. They know they got it right. Super Rugby’s rising stars are here. Richard ‘The Barracuda’ Buckman, of the Highlanders, is rubbing shoulders with versatile Brumbies forward Sam Carter. Giddy Crusader Jordan Taufua is shooting the breeze with the group tour guide, Nic Stirzaker of the Rebels. There are plenty of South Africa’s Lions around. It’s an exciting mix. Very early on, Deans brought in Ellis and Luke Whitelock, men he knew from his days in Crusaders rugby, to decide on a tour direction. There are a few long-established names in the group but the bulk of it is made up of firecracker talents who are kicking and screaming outside the door of Test rugby.
There are younger committee men too. Rory Lawson, the ex-Scotland scrum-half, has replaced John Jeffrey as the Scottish voice on the panel. Many in rugby will know of Micky Steele-Bodger, the club’s emblematic president, who at 91 is still an enormous presence. He is the Barbarians in so many ways. But younger men like Lawson and former England A prop David Barnes are in to ask questions, pitch new ideas, bridge any gap between players and the committee.
“There are a number of cogs to the machine that gets the Barbarians going,” Lawson explains. “Ultimately the first challenge is getting players – particularly in this window when nobody in the northern hemisphere will release them, although we were lucky to get Ben Franks and Dan Tuohy. With this particular group we had two World Cup winners, some experience, and then a load of hungry youngsters who want to prove themselves, not only to the Barbarians but to the wider world.
“The Barbarians must be competitive. When you come into an environment where you have four and a half hours of training to prepare for a Test, how can you do that? By bonding very quickly and the badge and name brings an attitude with it that the players want to do well. When you are against international teams that are settled, preparing for a big campaign or are midway through a series, it’s not easy. It’s important to win or remain competitive, as people will ask where your place is in the game if you don’t.”
“There are a number of cogs that get the Barbarians going."
CZECH CAPTAIN Robert Voves is on top of his opponent, raining down punches. At least, he is on the video he is showing Ellis, holding his iPhone in an enormous paw as the scrum-half stares on. Voves is a copper who has previously played professionally as a second-row in France’s ProD2. He claims to be peaceful at heart, despite his job requiring him to sometimes fight “junkies and drunk people”, and he only took up cage fighting to stay fit. He has fought twice and won twice.
Ellis is set to go on the Europe2 radio show with Voves, with both men trying to promote the match. Ellis gamely explains rugby to uninitiated hosts Jindra Ekl and Tomas Zastera, two giggling presenters who coyly attempt to draw a haka out of Ellis. The All Black diplomatically steers around questions about women and American Football.
Ellis was lucky enough to play in that 2010 Baa-Baas win over the Springboks and he led the side at Wembley, as well as scoring a cracking team try. He reflects on what makes a successful tour.
“It’s strange – it just sort of clicks,” he says. “Robbie’s been really good in the way he delivers messages. But then it’s the character of the guys. We’ve gone out and had a few beers and everyone’s got on really well, so if you get those good characters it works.
“We don’t train a lot. At the kick-off you just hope it works and it always does. You’ve got quality players from around the world who just go and play. The other thing is because it’s still the big stage, and it’s a proud history the Baa-Baas have, no one wants to let themselves down. There’s a lot of personal pride there.”
Paddy Ryan picks up the thread: “I haven’t been a part of as many good sides as Andy has, but I’ve been a part of some good ones. You always have the same motivation, to play for the boys around you because you enjoy their company. The biggest tell is in defence. Against South Africa we were pretty good. We leaked 31 points but 21 of those were from set-piece f***-ups.
“When you’ve had a whole season to prepare, fitness-wise, you know your body. Something that Michael Cheika says, which I reckon is one of the most profound things he says, is that fitness is being able to make your body comfortable with being uncomfortable. So if you know in your head how to do that, you haven’t forgotten, then you can go out for a few beers and still turn up to play a few days later. You can’t do it year-round but you can do it for a couple of weeks. Sunday night was like our fourth big night out of seven days and it was our best night.”
In the game against the Czechs, there were flashes of true brilliance from winger Melani Nanai and centre Matt Faddes. Rob du Preez of the Stormers kicked points and defended staunchly, while No 8 Ruan Ackermann pancaked attackers. Afterwards, another night was enjoyed. Three days later the Baa-Baas beat Fiji 40-7. It was Fiji’s first game of the autumn window.
Many will want stories of high jinks and nights out. With videos regularly flying into the tour WhatsApp group and the rich mystery of how a confiscated turtleneck sweater ended up on live Sky television, there will be vivid memories for players who forged them, forever in black and white.
What goes on tour may well stay on tour. But after visiting their 20th international opponent and with many new commercial avenues to be explored, and safe in the knowledge they’ve found the right selection formula, the Baa-Baas will stay on tour too.
This feature first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Rugby World magazine. Follow this link to subscribe.