What is the point of the Barbarians game, honestly?

Brett McKay Columnist

By , Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    The Wallabies’ match attracting the most attention at the moment is not their next one, but the one following that.

    And weirdly, the one being overlooked is a Test match while the one getting all the attention most certainly is not.

    The Wallabies have commenced preparations in Brisbane for Saturday night’s third Bledisloe Cup fixture of the year, and there is no doubt that that game will take the lion’s share of rugby media attention as it gets closer.

    Yet strangely, the Barbarians match in Sydney on October 28 has been getting the headlines, solely because former Wallabies Grand Slam-winning coach Alan Jones has been drawn, briefly, back into the coaching game.

    But there’s one huge question hanging over this game, and not even the game itself being played will render the question irrelevant.

    What is the actual point of the Wallabies playing the Barbarians in Sydney in October?

    For starters, it’s awkwardly timed. it is wedged in between the final Bledisloe Test and the first match of the Spring tour, where the Wallabies will play their first ever Test against Japan in Yokohama.

    If there was going to be a game worth some advance attention, surely it would be what is genuinely a piece of rugby history being made.

    Only four matches have been played between the two nations, with the last two being Rugby World Cup fixtures, and the most recent of those in France just over a decade ago.

    Australia, of course, played New Zealand in Tokyo en route to Europe back in 2009, a match played for much the same reasons I suspect are driving this Barbarians match.

    And the reason can’t be about getting game time, either.

    The last weekend in October would have been the final rugby-free weekend before the Wallabies headed to Japan, Ireland and Britain, and if squad members genuinely needed a hit-out, isn’t that what the NRC is played at this time of year for?

    Further complicating things is that the John Eales Medal is on the Thursday night before the Barbarians game, deliberately scheduled after the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup were complete, and then allowing voting for the 2018 medal to commence on the Spring tour.

    Australia's Stirling Mortlock (c) is tackled by Josh Lewsey (l) of the Barbarians

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    So the Wallabies, having come off a pretty tough TRC and Bledisloe campaign will be asked to prepare for a game on home soil they cannot afford to lose, with a disrupted preparation and on what was going to be their last weekend off before the end of year tour.

    Are we sure this a good idea?

    The Jones factor adds all new layers of complexity. Though he has long been, and remains, a strong supporter of Michael Cheika, Jones has always allowed his name to be thrown up as a potential Wallabies coach, despite having not coached rugby for more than 30 years.

    He even ‘applied’, in a manner of speaking, to replace John Connolly back in 2009, and then never let up on Robbie Deans, the man rightly appointed ahead of him.

    He’s never been short of opinions on the state of Australian rugby, and as the only coach to have led a Wallabies side on a Grand Slam tour of Great Britain and Ireland, his opinions are sought and respected.

    He still clearly enjoys rugby, loves it even, and this has led to him often being portrayed as some kind of saviour of the game in this country. Not that he’s ever felt the need to downplay this portrayal, mind you.

    His infamous “return to the game” announcement via social media back in July is a great example of this.

    He was more than happy to soak up the immediate attention and speculation this drew at the time, but the announcement itself – that he was going to coach the Barbarians – was massively underwhelming.

    The match itself, therefore, shapes as the classic lose-lose situation for the Wallabies.

    They can’t rest players, even though guys like Tatafu Polota-Nau, Adam Coleman, Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley and even Israel Folau have probably earned the right to sit a game like this out, because this would be seen as Cheika not taking the game – the non-capped, barely international game – seriously.

    Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley lines up a kick at goal

    (Photo by Tim Anger)

    They also can’t now pick guys on the fringe who have been named in the Baabaas squad, because that would be seen as the Wallabies and the ARU undermining Jones’ return.

    Equally, if the Wallabies win and especially if they win well, the reaction will be ‘so they should have’. If they lose, the ‘Jones for Wallabies coach’ machine will crank up all over again.

    Jones has said he wants to recognise now-former Western Force players, which he’s certainly done in naming nine of them in his initial 24-man squad.

    And while that’s admirable, it comes at the cost of completely undermining the Perth Spirit’s run to the NRC finals, where they could be without anywhere up to a dozen players for the final round match on the same day against Queensland Country.

    Four other teams in finals contention will also lose players to the match.

    Spirit coach Kevin Foote said a few weeks ago of the prospect, “If we need to take 15 new club guys away [for the final match], we will. I certainly don’t oppose releasing players at all.” Because what else could he say, really?

    So again, what will seriously be achieved by the Wallabies playing the Barbarians on October 28?

    The answer, sadly, can only be financial. Because when everything is laid out like this, it just doesn’t make sense by any other measure.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.