Rugby players should take some learnings from Barnes’s noble effort
New book looks at why players must never underestimate the power of imagination
Stuart Barnes in action for Bath against Saracens in April 1993. Photograph: Dave Rogers/Allsport
The language of rugby has changed hugely in the past quarter of a century. What used to be a tackle is now a big hit and wingers have wheels or gas as opposed to pace. The term dummy scissors belongs in a museum, along with Garryowens and argy-bargy. Naughty feet, game-changers, taking the learnings and going upstairs are rather more commonplace now than sidesteps, replacements, mud-baths or players drinking bottles of red to help them sleep better on the eve of major internationals.
It partly explains why Stuart Barnes’s new book, Sketches from Memory, is such a thought-provoking read. As a commentator and pundit, few wrestle with rugby’s modern lexicon on a more regular basis than Barnesy, never one to employ a cliché where a smart literary reference might do instead. The former Bath and England outhalf writes as he once played: dull orthodoxy remains his sworn enemy. His latest tome, typically, is not just any old rugby book. From Bob Dylan to Bath and Shakespeare to Sky, there is something for everyone in its honest, trenchant revealing and, occasionally, poetic pages.
With the Six Nations fast approaching, it could be worth today’s players sticking a copy in their kitbags as they prepare for the all-consuming annual frenzy. The game has altered beyond recognition but Barnes is very good on how players – and particularly talented playmakers – think. The fear of failure, the sting of selectorial rejection, the joy of true mateship, the quest for personal fulfilment . . . all of it will strike a chord with anyone who views playing as something more – to borrow another glib phrase – than just trucking the ball up.
Among the stories of great old Bath characters and the misty reminiscences of a sporting life well lived, there are two particularly salient messages. The first is the value of staying true to yourself. In Barnes’s case this was famously illustrated when he was recalled by England to face Scotland at Twickenham in 1993 after a lengthy, partly self-imposed Test exile.
Knowing his reputation was on the line he retreated rather nervously to his room at the Petersham Hotel on the Friday evening with a good book, only to be interrupted by a knock on the door. It was his friend and club-mate Jerry Guscott with an aforementioned nice bottle of red. “The hopes matured with the Bordeaux,” remembers Barnes. “What could have been a little sleep ended up a deep one. I woke up as ready as I would ever be.”
That Saturday, by his own admission, altered his life forever. England supporters had been crying out for someone, or something, to refresh their jaded palates and Barnes duly provided it, turning a tricky pass from Dewi Morris just outside his 22 into a classic break and slick pass to Guscott that ultimately produced a try for Rory Underwood at the other end. “One jink off the right foot and a decent pass changed my life,” writes Barnes. “I woke up the next day, Prince Hamlet for the only time in an international career of bit-part attendant.”
Barely a year later Barnes was a Fleet Street columnist and soon after that he was being snapped up by Sky as their voice of rugby. If his flash of supposedly off-the-cuff skill was not quite as instinctive as it looked, honed as it had been during countless hours of practice on Bath’s training field, it should serve as a timely reminder to today’s players of the importance of seizing the moment – and being prepared to take a risk to do so – whenever it materialises.
Long after people have forgotten the score of Scotland’s Calcutta Cup win over England last season, for instance, they will celebrate the spectacular long pass by Finn Russell to Huw Jones that created the match-defining score. How swiftly we have all forgotten how close Ireland came to losing to France in the opening match of last year’s Six Nations, until Johnny Sexton’s remarkable match-winning drop goal pointed them in the direction of grand slam heaven.
Twelve months on, Russell is a blossoming talent in Paris with Racing 92 while Sexton is the world player of the year. Had either of them settled for the mundane, the orthodox or the safe haven of their comfort zones, the magic would never have materialised. Of course top-level rugby is about winning but it is also about testing yourself, pushing the boundaries of what the majority think is possible and, in the process, enriching the lives of those lucky enough to be watching.
Which leads us to the central thesis of Barnes’s book, specifically his belief that facts are ultimately less crucial to personal fulfilment than feelings. Become too weighed down by the expectations of others or constrained by the law of averages and even the most successful players will feel slightly unfulfilled when they finish. “What I have learned in an obsessive rugby life is that nothing is inevitable,” writes Barnes.
Don’t tell him but he is right. Gym strength and GPS data are familiar features of the jargon-heavy modern Six Nations but never underestimate the power of the imagination.
Sketches from Memory: A Rugby Memoir by Stuart Barnes will be published on February 7th by Polaris Publishing