Barbarians match had a role, but no longer does in the modern game
n 1996 I was in Cardiff 10 days before Christmas. In 1997 I was in Edinburgh 18 days before Christmas. And in 1998 I flew home from London just two and a half weeks before Christmas.
Why the hell am I telling you all that? Well it has less to do with me than it has to do with the other blokes who were in those cities and doing the same things at that time. The Springboks finished their 1996 season against Wales in Cardiff on December 15, the following year they finished on the 7th, and so on.
The point of all that is that it’s not as though today’s Barbarians game against Fiji is seeing the South Africans – and New Zealanders – involved finishing the season later than we have ever seen southern hemisphere players finish their rugby year in the past. But then back in 1996, 1997 and 1998 the Super Rugby season didn’t extend to August, and the TriNations consisted of just four matches for each team.
Those who have participated in them will tell you Barbarians games still have their place. John Smit spoke afterwards of how special it was to rub shoulders with and get to know long-time opponents such as George Gregan and Richie McCaw when he was involved in one of those games a decade ago.
And having attended a few myself, I can tell you they are usually fun games to be at, although there have been occasions, such as when the Boks played the Baabaas in Dublin in 1994, where they’ve hardly been played in “Barbarians spirit”.
Which is what worries me about today’s game. The Barbarians are playing Fiji, possibly the hardest hitters in the tackle in world rugby – outside perhaps their South Sea neighbours from Tonga.
Does Heyneke Meyer really need his players to be risking their limbs when they should be enjoying their first week of a well-earned break?
I do know what Meyer thinks of it, because he told the media people who had gathered for a post-season wash-up session at the team hotel in Montparnasse last Sunday in no uncertain terms what he felt. He thought it was crazy, and it is hard to disagree with him.
To that end, perhaps the most sensible message to hit my inbox this week came from the Blue Bulls. Their CEO Barend van Graan laid out his reasons for not allowing Flip van der Merwe to
Iplay in the game. He said this was an important part of the Bulls’ pre- season, and although Van der Merwe would have been resting today and not training, he is right.
There is such a small window in the year for players to get proper rest and recuperation, following a hard season and in preparation for the next, that every available free minute should be gleefully grabbed.
With another tough Super Rugby season on the horizon, Van der Merwe’s employers were right to pull him out of a match that suits no- one other than the players who swell their bank balances by something like £10 000.
That’s R165 000 for 80 minutes work, so in answer to the inevitable question, yes of course I would take it if I had the opportunity. But it shouldn’t be up to the players; their unions should take the decision away from them like the Bulls did with Van der Merwe.
Of course there are New Zealanders involved in today’s game too, but take a look at the All Blacks who are playing and compare them to the Springboks. The Kiwi contingent is not made up of the most crucial and overplayed members of the side, like the Bok contingent is.
If anyone should be smiling today it should be Steve Hansen, the All Black mentor who is coaching the Barbarians. He gets a chance to get in the minds, however briefly, of the top Bok players, and it’s mostly the guys who represent the team that constitute his biggest rivals that will be at risk, not his own key players.
Jean de Villiers, at the end of a busy year, will be leading the side. It may sound like a huge honour for him to be captaining the Barbarians, but he is already captain of his country. If he gets injured today and joins Eben Etzebeth on the sidelines when the Stormers start their Super Rugby campaign next year the honour will have come at an unacceptable cost to his employers. It’s idiotic.