The Barbarians' legacy: The dilemma of winning v entertainment
Tom Hamilton
May 26, 2015
Robbie Deans
Robbie Deans© (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

"If you don't have fun, it's your own damn fault," was the message from Barbarians president Micky Steele-Bodger when he handed out the ties to the latest recruits to the famous touring side ahead of their matches against Ireland and England. Birthdays are a special event, but when you hit 125 years, you have a monumental legacy behind you.

"It's not for any of us to tamper with that history, we have to add to it," added their coach Robbie Deans as he addressed the full squad in Ireland ahead of their two matches. As rugby becomes ever-modernised and continues its growth as a commercial entity, the days of amateurism seem increasingly distant. The Barbarians were risking becoming an anachronism as they were far too often on the wrong end of thrashings. The summer of 2013 saw the Barbarians lose 40-12 to an England XV and then receive a thorough shellacking from the Lions in Hong Kong. The quick-paced brilliance we saw in the 70s, that mesmeric Gareth Edwards try, were lacking.

But since then: rebirth. The Barbarians are currently in the midst of a wonderful renaissance. Though they lost to the Wallabies in early November the brilliance of Frank Saili, Frank Halai, Colin Slade and Nick Cummins more than made up for their four-point shortfall.

With the Barbarians comes the off-field infamous excess where the players are on the right end of all manner of corporate invitations and these are essential in the continuation of the side. But there is also a serious side to it: winning.

"The days of invitation sides being thrown together and succeeding against settled groups are few and far between but having said that the concept of the Barbarians is superb," Deans told ESPN. "The players enjoy and respect it and they understand the history. I think what you see in recent times is players have really embraced that it is a rare privilege and they don't want to tarnish it in any way.

"They want to make sure in their time they add to the legacy so part of that is expressing themselves but there is a risk in that as the opposition will want to suffocate us. It's more the playing of the game for the right reasons which is the crux."

Deans has a fiendishly difficult task to bring this group together. Some of the Ireland-based contingent only met their new team-mates on Monday evening ahead of their match on Thursday at Thomond Park. The final squad was also only confirmed following the weekend's play-off matches so Deans only knew the full complement on Monday. Now comes the task of working out how they will knock over a Leinster-packed Ireland XV on Thursday and an England side full of youth but also containing those wanting to gate-crash the World Cup squad.

"You have to do a lot of talking," says Deans. "The boys are good, they understand the unusual circumstance and they enjoy the opportunity to meet and mingle with players they usually play against. You start off the field and then you try and make everyone at ease as fast as possible. You also have some language challenges.

"Then you have to bring it together as quickly and simply as possible to allow them to present themselves and bring their strengths to the fore. There's literally no time to work on combinations and in too much detail so we've got to be creative in the way we approach it. It's only a brief window and for most it will be the first and last occasion they play for the Barbarians. That lends itself to creativity."

Deans thought his opportunity to coach the Barbarians had passed him by. "I've turned the good old-fashions down in the years due to my international commitments so it's great to be doing it," is his take with his commitments in Japan with the Panasonic Wild Knights allowing him to take control of the team for their two-game tour.

Up first are Ireland on Thursday night and the starting Barbarians team features nine different nationalities. It combines the experience of Adam Jones and Joe Rokocoko, Alex Cuthbert is there to prove a point to the Wales selectors and there are also those a little more unknown from Uruguay and Japan. It is a wonderful marrying of cultures, perspectives and languages but the collective goal is simple: winning. It will be a Barbarians team focused on getting over the line against Ireland and England and if that means taking the three points when on offer - seemingly violating the unwritten rule of jouer rugby - they will do it.

"They're all proud men," says Deans. "People pay to see a contest so they don't want one side to approach a game in a different way to another. They want both teams to respect the fact the scoreboard is relevant."

© Tom Hamilton

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