John Barclay: 'A force to be reckoned with' bows out for Scotland

John Barclay led Scotland to Calcutta Cup success at Murrayfield in February 2018
John Barclay led Scotland to Calcutta Cup success at Murrayfield in February 2018

If you had told the young John Barclay back in 2007 that the Scotland debut he had just made against New Zealand at the World Cup was only the first of 76 caps he would win stretching across the next dozen years, he wouldn't have just bitten your hand off in gratitude, he'd have taken your arm out of its socket.

He was only 20 then. As an 18-year-old, he had been called into a Scotland training squad so you could say that his involvement has spanned 14 years and not 12. In the modern game, where brutality is the watchword, he has lasted longer than most.

At his pomp, Barclay was an internationally-respected player, a guy that big names from other countries would always talk about when asked about the threat that Scotland posed. His leadership, his cleverness, his belligerence made him a forced to be reckoned with.

Opponents would call him a pain in the backside - the language was usually a touch saltier than that - and when they said it, they said it with a high regard for what he did. In the rugby war zone that is the breakdown, Barclay was one of the effective operators around. If you were drawing up a list of the most influential Scottish players from the last 30 years Barclay would be very close to top-five material.

There can't be a lot of surprise that he has announced his international retirement. He's 33, has a lot of miles on the clock and just recently he's been bypassed by other players. As he said in his statement, all good things come to an end. The end, in his case, did not sit well with what went before.

He started against Ireland in Scotland's opening game of the World Cup in Japan, then got dropped for the next one against Samoa, then got reinstated for the easy win over Russia before getting dropped again for the big one against Japan. Having led the team for so long, the sight of him as a bit-part performer told you that the end was nigh.

Going forward, he would have had Magnus Bradbury and Sam Skinner blocking his path to the blindside spot, Blade Thomson and Ryan Wilson ahead of him at number eight, and Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie first in line at openside. That's not to mention the younger guns, Matt Fagerson, Bruce Flockhart and Luke Crosbie. This looks like a good time to say goodbye.

He's had more bad days than good in the Scotland jersey, but the highs were pretty unforgettable. Four wins against Australia (two of them away from home), a win over Ireland in their last ever game at Croke Park, victories against South Africa, France, England and Wales and a series win in Argentina. The only major nation he didn't beat was New Zealand - and he came pretty close a few years back.

'A study of aggression and intelligence'

John Barclay was among the try-scorers when Australia were routed at Murrayfield in November 2017
Barclay was among the try-scorers when Australia were routed at Murrayfield in November 2017

For Barclay, the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 might be deemed the best of the lot, not just because he captained the side quite often in that period but principally because he never saw those days coming.

From November 2013 to August 2015 he had been ignored by his country. His performances with the Scarlets in Llanelli were of a consistently high standard but he wasn't picked, firstly by Scott Johnson and then Vern Cotter. In a deeply controversial call by Cotter, he was left out of the 2015 World Cup. Barclay said later that he felt he would never win another cap, but he did.

His displays for the Scarlets demanded it. He captained them to a 46-22 victory over Munster in the Pro12 in 2017. Given that was a team that contained Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and Gareth Davies, the fact that Barclay was the leader told you much about the esteem in which he was held in Wales.

When he came back into the international fold, he captained Scotland when they beat Australia in Sydney in the summer of 2017, was captain again when Scotland put 53 points on the Wallabies that autumn and led the team throughout the 2018 Six Nations. The Calcutta Cup win at Murrayfield may go down as his finest day.

The 25-13 win over England will be remembered for Huw Jones' two remarkable tries and Finn Russell's extraordinary floated pass that sparked one of the greatest of all Scotland tries, but away from the glamour lay Barclay, a study of aggression and intelligence at the coal face in a tour-de-force performance, one of the best a Scottish forward has produced in decades.

A few months later, Barclay ruptured his Achilles tendon when playing for the Scarlets against Glasgow at Scotstoun. He was out of the game for the guts of a year. At his age such a severe injury was a nightmare.

He's been fighting his body ever since. Fighting time, too. The World Cup was his last stand on the Test stage, but it's not what his international career will be remembered for.

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