Barbarians face credibility battle
December 4, 2011
Barbarians skipper Victor Matfield and his side got little change out of the Wallabies earlier this month © Getty Images
The world-famous select side leaked eight tries and slumped to a 60-11 defeat in a woeful display that suddenly had fans questioning whether there was still a place for the Baa Baas in the current rugby landscape. There is little chance of a side with such a colourful history disappearing altogether but if they are to retain their credibility, their commercial viability and a valuable date within an already packed calendar, they will need to ensure they are more competitive in the future.
A crowd of 51,000 turned up in the hope of witnessing yet another famous free-flowing Barbarians display true to their expansive roots but sadly it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. This was not the fired-up Barbarians side that beat South Africa in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago or that which memorably accounted for New Zealand the year before. This was more like the side that capitulated at the hands of the Wallabies in 2009. All three of those sides were equally laden with international talent with the likes of New Zealand's Jerome Kaino and Adam Thomson and South Africa's Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana - World Cup winners all - among those who lined up at Twickenham in their latest incarnation.
So why such a poor showing? "When you come up for the Barbarians you don't have a lot of training, so some days you click, other days you struggle a bit," was Matfield's explanation after bringing down the curtain on his playing career with a comical miss-hit conversion that summed up his star-studded side's shortcomings.
Matfield's assessment as to the intensity of the training in the few days they were together may be a little generous. The Barbarians are not known for their dedication to honing their skills on the practice field - far from it. A bit of ball work and some consideration for the set-piece is normally the precursor for a more serious session of the social kind in a pub of some description.
"Bonding is important," former All Blacks coach Graham Henry told me as he prepared to take charge of the Barbarians for the first time. For bonding read drinking. The wry smile on his face and the constant swigs from the bottle of water that was a constant companion during our recent interview hinted that it may be just as important for coaches as it is for players.
"We've got 10 different countries represented within our 22 players which is remarkable," he went on to explain. "It is the only time that it happens. It's the only time in world rugby where you get a group of international players playing together. They get on remarkably well, they have a lot of respect for each other and there is a lot of banter and quite a bit of bonding."
But don't assume this is the reason for their drubbing at the hands of the Wallabies. 'Bonding' is as much part of the Barbarians' tradition as the black and white hoops they wear. Stories of epic social sessions seem to follow each Barbarians fixture with their opposition often along for the ride while the odd injury-enforced absence can be traced back to a night on the town rather than a mishap in training.
"Baa Baas had a few points put on them today," remarked ex-All Blacks prop Carl Hayman on Twitter following the game before suggesting they had not struck the right work-play balance. "Their off field activities must have been too low key #beerbuilds betterbodies." His comment was aimed at his Toulon team-mate and former Springboks international Joe van Niekerk who echoed his friend's sentiments: "They definitely didn't get tight enough off the field biggest!!! That's where the winning starts beerbuilds betterbodies." Both men were talking from experience having helped steer the Barbarians to a notable victory over England at Twickenham earlier this year - clearly on the back of a series of what proved to be fruitful bonding sessions.
Van Niekerk, who followed up his Baa Baas bow against England with a key role in their victory over Wales the following week, is a lifelong fan of the Barbarians and took to the micro-blogging site once again to defend the side's traditions. "Please...anyone who reckons the Baa Baas should not exist is dreaming possibly one of the greatest organisations in the world of rugby!!!"
All Blacks assistant coach Steve Hansen is another lifelong fan and should he step into the top job in the wake of Henry's departure, as expected, then it is clear he will be happy to continue to tackle the Barbarians. "The Barbarians concept is magnificent for rugby and we should hang on to it for as long as we can," he insisted having shared the coaching duties with Henry for the Wallabies clash.
The one-sided result also failed to take the shine off the occasion for Matfield. "I think it's a fantastic idea and we need this in rugby. It's the only time we really get to know the other top players," he said. "It was a fantastic week and, even though we lost the game by so many points, I will remember it for a long time. The Barbarians have two out of three now in the last three years against the southern hemisphere teams so why shoot them down after one bad game?"
Having provided us with a wealth of magical memories we can perhaps excuse the Barbarians the odd off day especially at the end of a gruelling year and with the dust only just settling on the Rugby World Cup. But the world's leading players - and coaches - must remember that as guardians of everything the Barbarians stand for, they must endeavour to make sure the team does not fail so spectacularly to cover itself in glory in the future.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.