Man of the people David Barnes

Once bitten, twice shy? Not where David Barnes is concerned. The Bath prop is back in training to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro, nearly three years after he first conquered Africa’s highest peak. In 2008 Barnes scaled the 5,895m mountain to raise money for the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) Benevolent Fund, and in particular to assist Tamara Johnson, a Bath Women’s player who had suffered a serious neck injury.

This time round Barnes is again aiming to raise money for the Benevolent Fund but he’s also doing it for Help for Heroes, the charity that raises money for British military personnel wounded in the line of duty. It was in September last year that the 34-year-old first visited Headley Court in Surrey where a highly-trained team of dedicated medical staff work in rehabilitating injured soldiers. Sobering, humbling, inspiring, it was all of those things for Barnes.

“I actually went to Headley Court as part of my testimonial year,” explains Barnes, who was awarded the honour for a decade of unstinting service to the West Country club. “One of the charities involved in the testimonial was Help for Heroes and I wanted to see for myself some of the work being carried out on their behalf.

“The visit just took my breath away. I met guys who’d been very badly injured fighting for their country and yet not one was moaning. They had accepted their injuries and were determined to overcome them. A lot of them were talking about rejoining their regiments. The determination was truly amazing and made me feel very humble.

“Humble but also resolved to raise money for Headley Court so that the medical staff can continue their magnificent work. A few meetings and several phone calls later and the Mount Kilimanjaro Challenge 2011 was in motion. It’s impossible to say who exactly will be going on the expedition. Two of my old team-mates from Bath have signed up, Matt Perry and Mark Regan, and a few current players are interested, but they can’t make a definite commitment because the nature of professional rugby means injuries have a habit of getting in the way.”

Someone else who’ll be striding up Kili with Barnes is Andy Blyth, the former England A centre who suffered a career-ending spinal injury in March 2000. For a while doctors thought Blyth would never walk again but now he’s champing at the bit to experience the agony of climbing Kilimanjaro – and that’s not even taking into account the inevitable banter gushing non-stop from the mouth of Regan.

“It’s one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever undertaken,” is how Barnes describes his first ascent.

“I suffered from altitude sickness. It began with a headache, a bit like a hangover, then I began to vomit, my lips turned blue and I ended with fluid on the lungs, what they call a pulmonary edema. Luckily I had a great guide who was able to give me advice and medicine so I could still get to the top of the mountain.”

Barnes is already training hard for the expedition, somehow managing to fit it in around his commitments not just with Bath but also with the RPA, of which he is chairman. It’s a role that has brought him much satisfaction as the game in Britain has negotiated its way through some not always calm waters. One of Barnes’s pressing concerns in 2011 is head injuries, not surprising seeing as he’s spent the best part of 15 years with his head in the scrum. “The issue of head injuries is still something we need to better understand. Not just in the short term but the long-term effect. More research needs to be done into concussion, for instance, and we should look at other sports, and always ensure the players’ welfare is paramount.”

As for Bath, Barnes believes the arrival of new owner Bruce Craig early last year is a harbinger of better years to come. “Bruce has come in and shown real dynamism and a real desire to restore the glory days once more to Bath,” he says. “We’ve got new training facilities, we’ve got one of the best coaches around in Sir Ian McGeechan; in short, the players have got no excuse for not turning things around.”

There’s also a unity within the squad that Barnes says resembles what it was when he first arrived at The Rec all those years ago. “Any successful side plays well together on the field but also bonds well off it, and I think that we’ve got that tightness back at Bath with the likes of David Flatman and Luke Watson playing a big part. The banter’s there, the camaraderie’s there, and so is the respect among the players. The club’s in a healthy state this season.”

As for Barnes, he says that he’s no intention of calling it quits just yet. He’s enjoying his rugby as much as ever and the emergence of young Bath prop Nathan Catt is helping to keep him on his toes. Altitude sickness might afflict Barnes, but one thing he’ll never have a problem with is attitude sickness.

This article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine

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