John Barclay: ‘We want it to be chaotic and uncomfortable in Dublin’

Breakdown king a threat to Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions

Dan Leavy may find a cautionary tale in the man seeking to stoop under his arching frame. John Barclay was the golden child – brought into Scottish training as a teenager by Matt Williams having captained Dollar Academy to the Scottish Schools cup title in 2004 - the chosen seven.

“I brought John in as an 18 year old to give him some experience,” said Williams. “Physically he was good, just a very special young player, a real breakaway openside, all over the ball. We saw that against England; so brave and technically excellent.”

Barclay's debut came against Richie McCaw at the 2007 World Cup. An awful 40-0 debacle at Murrayfield after Scotland coach Frank Hadden took one look at the fixtures and threw the fixture, admittedly training his starting XV that very morning.

For an hour Barclay happily met McCaw in the dirt. Scottish rugby do have something in common with the Wallabies and All Blacks: the openside is king. Here was their groundhog for the next decade, a bona fide leader, seemingly undroppable.


“He’s had to deal with great adversity,” said Williams. “Been treated very poorly. He does not suffer fools gladly. So maybe he told them so.”

Falling out with Scott Johnson – the David Nucifora of Scottish rugby was interim head coach from 2012 to 2014 – proved an unwise happening.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Williams, among others, when asked this week. “I think he might of stood up and said some things that needed saying.”

Leaving Glasgow for Scarlets in 2013, a chorus from Llanelli similar to Leicester roars about Geordan Murphy were constant. Sent down the Tadhg Beirne redemption road before the incoming Munster lock released by Leinster, knew such a journey existed.

Recall against England

No Six Nations appearance from March 2012 in Rome until a recall against England at Murrayfield in February 2016, Vern Cotter arrived from Clermont, glancing south yet deciding not to bring Barclay to the 2015 World Cup. Eventually, Cotter came around: "[Barclay] knows how to talk to referees, he knows how to captain a side."

A Killer B reborn; the only survivor from a backrow that stung the life out of Ireland's Triple Crown bid at Croke Park in 2010, the lost captain is finally leading

A Killer B reborn; the only survivor from a backrow that stung the life out of Ireland’s Triple Crown bid at Croke Park in 2010, the lost captain is finally leading.

The best example of his value came off an English scrum a fortnight ago. George Ford stepped inside Finn Russell and carried through Ali Price but Barclay arrived like a spinning dervish to slam the outhalf to ground with rapid release and re-engage just as Chris Robshaw arrived. The former England captain could not loosen the vice. The penalty followed as Barclay's back got reddened by loving slaps.

“Listen, it’s pretty brutal in there,” he smiled afterwards. “As soon as you get hands on opposition ball at the breakdown, then you’re waiting to be steamrollered. You know that one, two, three guys who usually have a good run-up on you are going to try to obliterate you.”

That wasn't the case against England who naively committed one man to most attacking rucks, thinking Nigel Owens would referee like Wayne Barnes or other premiership whistlers.

A simple presumption follows: break down Barclay or Ireland’s Grand Slam ambition unravels.

‘Real threat’

"I don't think John Barclay got too many balls off us last year and they still led 21-5 just prior to half time," said Joe Schmidt. "Hamish Watson is another real threat over the ball. Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown were formally loose forwards so their hookers are very good over the ball as well.

“It would be too simplistic to say ‘Stop John Barclay and that would have a major impact.’ It would always be part of the equation because he is a super player.”

The formulas are in applied mathematics now.

“We know what’s coming at the Aviva,” wrote Barclay in his BBC column. “Loads of intensity, loads of attrition. Ireland are in great form and they’re well drilled. I’m always saying whoever looks after the ball best usually wins these games and Ireland look after the ball extremely well.”

Barclay thrives amidst the Gregor Townsend encouraged chaos but France and Wales dominated Scotland at the breakdown for long stretches. They quelled Barclay.

Leavy has similar designs. It’s too simplistic to call their duel a microcosm of the game, but it’s where one team can lose unrecoverable ground. The famed Irish rucking technique will be forensically examined. If Barclay is getting slapped about by his own the slam is sliding from view.

“We want it to be chaotic and uncomfortable in Dublin,” said the now established Scotland captain. “We did it last year when they came to Edinburgh. We’re comfortable when there’s chaos breaking out but the line between chaos and control is a fine one and striking the balance between these two bedfellows is crucial. Plant a few seeds of doubt early and go from there.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent