I’ve been a Barbarians supporter ever since the Australia versus Barbarians game finishing off the grand slam of 1984. Anyone who watched that game will remember it to this day.
That Barbarians game was the stand-out match of the famous series.
The Baa Baas fielded the absolute best players from every Grand Slam nation, many out for some pay-back following their defeats at the hands of the Wallabies, as well as France including the great Serge Blanco.
Australia’s 37-30 victory was never truly secure until the final whistle.
Unfortunately since the dawn of the professional era, the Barbarians have been treated as somewhat of a joke, with no one really taking them seriously.
I went to a sub-standard match in Cardiff in 2001 to see Australia versus a Bob Dwyer-coached Barbarians. No one on either side seemed to be attempting any sort of physicality at the breakdown – it was almost touch football – and at one stage two Barbarians players scored the same try, with both awarded a try on the scoreboard.
The Baa Baas through these years were often only able to field weak squads and their opponents responded in kind by resting their best players.
Fortunately in recent years there has been a bit of a Baa Baas revival, starting with the 2008 game against the Wallabies.
That game was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Wallabies’ gold medal at the 1908 Olympic games against Great Britain (represented by the Cornwall Rugby Club). The 2008 Barbarians wore the socks of Cornwall, instead of the socks of the players’ home clubs as is tradition. The players took their jerseys seriously, there was even a bit of spite at times – which can be a good thing if kept within reason.
Unfortunately the following year’s fixture in Sydney was less remarkable.
The Barbarians have normally played in the spirit of the game, often forgoing easy attempts at penalty goals and opting for the try. While in Cardiff I had the opportunity to get to know former Welsh player Barry John (aka ‘The King’), who told me about a match he played for the Barbarians.
The game was approaching halftime and the score was tied with a couple of tries each. Barry found himself inside the 22, in front of the goalpost, and easily in range. It seemed to him like a good chance to get ahead on the scoreboard before the break so he dropped back into the packet, called to the scrumhalf and knocked over an easy drop goal.
At halftime the Barbarians coach – a gruff former British army brigadier – took him aside and told him in no uncertain terms: “We at the Barbarians are not in the business of drop goals!”
The Barbarians have always attempted to put on a show, and have tended towards exciting rugby, striving for a fast, running game that would make a Fijian sevens team proud. Until England’s win in 2002, they were the only ‘European’ team to win the Hong Kong Sevens tournament.
It is also worth remembering the Barbarians are credited with scoring the greatest try in the history of the game – so great it’s now simply referred to as “That try”. The day’s commentator, Cliff Morgan, said at the restart “If the greatest writer of the written word would have written that story, no one would have believed it.” It didn’t really matter if the last pass was a tad forward.
I certainly hope the Barbarians in the coming game against the Wallabies take the game seriously.
The Barbarians are a rugby tradition with a rich history. They are one of those things that makes the game unique. At its worst A Baa Baas game can be a sloppy exhibition match treated as a fun afternoon practice session by all involved. At its finest, Barbarians rugby can be the best rugby you’ll ever see.