Deans be­lieves Bar­bar­ians rep­re­sent ‘the essence of rugby’

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - GER­ARD MEAGHER

It can be all too easy to laud New Zealand for their black magic, to marvel at their sor­cery and won­der pre­cisely what kind of deal they have made with the devil. On Satur­day, how­ever, we may just wit­ness the great­est trick they ever pulled.

The All Blacks cel­e­brate their 125th an­niver­sary on Satur­day in what, on the face of it, ap­pears to be a glo­ri­fied trial match for a num­ber of the New Zealan­ders – there are 10 in to­tal – rep­re­sent­ing the Bar­bar­ians. Ju­lian Savea heads the queue but Richie Mo’unga, Vince Aso and Ge­orge Bridge also fall into the cat­e­gory of play­ers on, or ap­proach­ing, the fringes of the All Blacks squad.

For Steve Hansen, cast­ing an eye over Savea and co on the train­ing pad­dock is one thing, do­ing so when they are lin­ing up against his All Blacks is quite another. In ad­di­tion, it will be in front of a bumper crowd that may reach 70,000, it takes place on Eng­land’s turf, New Zealand hav­ing turned down the Rugby Foot­ball Union’s be­lated ad­vances for a show­down, and the vis­i­tors will bank a few mil­lion quid for the priv­i­lege.

Hansen was right to sug­gest this week Eng­land “may want to share a bit” – a ref­er­ence to the RFU’s re­luc­tance to split rev­enue dur­ing the of­fi­cial Test win­dow – but he might have been ad­vised to ac­knowl­edge this match sig­nif­i­cantly swells New Zealand cof­fers.

For while we will have to take at face value the la­ments of Ian Fos­ter, the All Blacks’ as­sis­tant coach, that there are no home na­tions play­ers in the Bar­bar­ians squad, all things con­sid­ered, the vis­i­tors have landed on their feet.

Fur­ther­more, the NZRU chief ex­ec­u­tive, Steve Tew, will no doubt en­joy his af­ter­noon, hav­ing been told to “go and build a big­ger sta­dium” by the RFU last year.

Mov­able of feasts

That is not to sug­gest this was the plan all along. In­deed, this Bar­bar­ians squad has been the most mov­able of feasts. In May the idea was a World XV, fea­tur­ing a stel­lar cast of names such as David Po­cock and Dan Carter, and two months later it was touted as an un­of­fi­cial de­cider fol­low­ing the Bri­tish & Ir­ish Lions’ drawn Test se­ries in New Zealand. It was al­ways planned there would be a tranche of Premier­ship play­ers – in­deed, an agree­ment was reached with Premier­ship Rugby Limited – and even hope some Eng­land play­ers left out of the train­ing camp in Por­tu­gal may be avail­able.

The raft of in­juries in the Premier­ship has left coaches, di­rec­tors of rugby and own­ers too wary of re­leas­ing their play­ers, how­ever, and it raises the wider ques­tion of the Bar­bar­ians’ place on the land­scape. This week Rob­bie Deans, who again takes charge of the in­vi­ta­tional side, talked of how the Bar­bar­ians rep­re­sent “the essence of rugby” but the clut­tered cal­en­dars of both hemi­spheres would ap­pear to threaten the rel­e­vance of a team that have al­ways cher­ished their ama­teur ideals.

The South African hooker Adri­aan Strauss, one of Deans’s vice-cap­tains, would dis­agree, how­ever. He re­tired from in­ter­na­tional rugby aged 30 last year un­der the strain of cap­taincy dur­ing the Spring­boks’ tur­moil but has “re­dis­cov­ered his love of the game” thanks to the Bar­bar­ians.

Nota drink­ing club

Yet it is clear the Bar­bar­ians no longer works as a drink­ing club for sea­soned old pros. So­cial me­dia were awash with Hal­loween fancy dress pic­tures this week but Deans seems to have dis­cov­ered the cor­rect for­mula of ex­tra-cur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity with­out too much ex­cess, hav­ing over­seen a highly cred­itable 31-31 draw against South Africa this time last year.

Just as is the case this week­end, it was not a team lit­tered with big-name draws, rather young­sters look­ing to make the step up to in­ter­na­tional level and that is one of the key roles of the modern Bar­bar­ians, ac­cord­ing to Deans: “The group we had last year didn’t have many caps in it but they pro­duced some great rugby and that’s what it’s about. Now you’re see­ing a lot of them com­ing through in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

As is Deans’s way, there is also a Cru­saders spine to the squad, and an un­der­stated strength, al­beit with a Su­per Rugby flavour. It may be push­ing it to sug­gest the BaaBaas will shock the All Blacks, as they did in 2009, but they have the ca­pac­ity to be com­pet­i­tive with Savea a po­ten­tially po­tent weapon.

The All Blacks, mean­while, are miss­ing a few play­ers them­selves but have the self-aware­ness to sense the oc­ca­sion and show­case a bit of that magic – the hooker Asafo Au­mua is cer­tainly one to watch – in a way that Jones’s cal­low Eng­land side frankly did not back in May.

As Hansen ob­served, it is largely down to the Bri­tish pub­lic’s thirst for live sport that Twick­en­ham will be con­sid­er­ably more than half-full. No doubt he re­alises that, be­cause of how the cards have fallen, New Zealand’s glass is too.

Bar­bar­ians coach Rob­bie Deans: bat­tling against a clut­tered cal­en­dar

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