Sport Rugby

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Tony Ward: Bye bye Baa-Baas


to his
during the
defeat to
Australia on
Danny Cipriani gestures to his team-mates during the Barbarians defeat to Australia on Saturday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

As a former Barbarian, may I be forgiven the sin of losing faith. This once great concept is about as meaningful now as a tub of tanning lotion in the Antarctic.

For those who tuned in to the game at Twickenham on Saturday -- I recorded it and watched the match upon my return from real rugby in the AIL at Stradbrook -- they would have been treated to a one-sided romp, as Australia decimated the hosts 60-11.

Clearly there is a market for this rubbish, as a crowd somewhere in the region of 50,000 turned up to watch southern hemisphere stars on retirement packages north of the equator, alongside those no longer good enough to hold down places for their clubs in bread and butter competition.

The Barbarian Football Club used to be an Invitational XV based in Britain. In fairness it was not, nor has it ever been, an elite entity restricted to players of the home unions comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

That said, what passes now for the original Barbarian ideal is a joke and unlike the Lions, which has survived and prospered beyond anyone's wildest imagination, the Baa-Baa concept is as dead as the proverbial dodo.

As an opportunity for the southern hemisphere diaspora to congregate under the guise of rugby, I guess it has its place, but please may we be spared any suggested link now with the Barbarian ideal of old.

What started out as an internal touring club on mainland Britain in 1890 -- when William Percy Carpmael put together a Southern Nomads selection for an end-of-season tour of the north -- became something much bigger when, in 1948, in order to raise 'patriotic funds' towards the Australian tour cost of that year, the fixture was introduced as a final game experiment.

It proved hugely successful, so much so that it became essentially a fifth Test and the one in which every top player from the four home unions wanted to play.

It was, to all intents and purposes, as close as the British and Irish Lions ever came to playing on their own patch. Within that too developed the much cherished tradition of fielding at least one uncapped player.

There was also the honour of wearing the Baa-Baas gear complete with each player's domestic club socks -- a small symbol perhaps, but hugely significant in terms of recognition for player and club alike. Put simply, the Baa-Baas invite was the one that every player wanted dropping through his door.

For players of my generation, Barbarian involvement centred around the Easter tour; four days spent touring and playing the south Wales venues of Penarth, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport wasn't the most enticing.

Good Friday in Penarth was the traditional start to the Easter tour, with the Esplanade Hotel effectively the club base. When Herbie Waddell or Micky Steele-Bodger gave you the call, invariably the answer was yes, although it did clash with the Bermuda Easter Classic. Penarth or Bemuda? What do you think? And having done one Welsh crusade in '79, my conscience was clear!

Although there has been a one-off commemorative game since, the Penarth tradition died out in '86, almost a full decade before professionalism kicked in. Even then the concept was on the wane.

The final fixture of the SANZAR tours did continue but with increasing difficulty post-'95. Graham Henry and Steve Hansen as coaches to Saturday's side have tried to defend the Barbarian concept.

Henry said: "We can't lose what this is all about... this great club trying to bring players together from all around the rugby world. If we lose that, we are going to lose something special."

Their attempted defence is admirable but they know, like the rest of us, that the great concept upon which it was built has been long lost.

Elsewhere, it was business as usual in the Pro 12, where Munster, Leinster and the Ospreys confirmed their continued dominance of the league.

From an Irish perspective it's the same old story, with Munster (as reigning champions) and Leinster continuing to spread the net and deepen the player pool for bigger and greater challenges ahead.

In Italy, Eoin O'Malley again stepped up to the mark with authority and conviction in the No 13 shirt. With each passing game, as his experience and confidence grows, he moves further into the frame for Six Nations inclusion.

With respect to others in contention, including the out-of-action Keith Earls, Danny Barnes, Darren Cave, Nevin Spence, Eoin Griffin and Dave McSharry, it looks as if whoever nails that shirt at Leinster will swap blue for green come February.

To that end it is a three-way fight between O'Malley, Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald. I still believe Fitzgerald has all the relevant ingredients to be a serious operator down that midfield channel, but without game time in the outside centre slot he has little chance.

If anything, Munster were even more impressive than Leinster, given the wholesale changes they made against Edinburgh, albeit in the safe house that is Thomond Park.

Barnes, Ian Keatley, Denis Hurley, Luke O'Dea and Simon Zebo all impressed behind the scrum and while Hurley deservedly picked up the Man of the Match gong, it was Zebo who most left the main imprint this time out.

He has got stronger and is counter-attacking harder, still fuelled by that natural inclination to run rather than kick. It is a formula I like and one in this age of precious forward momentum that will not have been lost on Tony McGahan.

What would Connacht give to have a player of that calibre? For all the promise shown by Tiernan O'Halloran, Griffin and McSharry, the team is still lacking that vital cutting edge in line-breaking ability. It is so frustrating for everybody concerned.

I don't have the statistics but I doubt Eric Elwood's side is losing much in terms of ball possession and field position, but when it comes to potency and scoring ability beyond the maul it is difficult at present to see where the tries are going to come from.

As for Ulster? Out of Ravenhill they appear to be all at sea. It is a serious concern for Brian McLaughlin as his team, who often promise so much, keep failing to deliver on the road.

Glasgow may be riding high in the Pro 12 but, as we saw at the RDS against Leinster the previous week, they are a side extremely limited in quality and ambition.

With just two points separating the Ulster men from Connacht and with the remaining clash between the sides scheduled for the Sportsground in April, it's all to play for in terms of Heineken Cup qualification for next year.

Given the respective resources of the clubs it should be no contest, but for the men from the west it's still an achievable aspiration and the last thing Ulster need is to be travelling to the Sportsground with European qualification on the line on a wet and windy night in April.

In terms of motivation, need McLaughlin say more?

Irish Independent

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