Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Analysis: Barclay’s Breakdown Influence

John Barclay in action - courtesy of Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Scott Johnson may have raised a few eyebrows with his choice of front-row for Sunday’s clash with South Africa at Murrayfield, but there were few grumbles to be heard over the restoration of openside flanker John Barclay to the number seven jersey.

The battle at the breakdown against a physical and technically-excellent Springbok back-row will be vital, and the presence of an out-and-out openside is somewhat reassuring for the Scots.  Be under no illusions, Barclay is up against a huge challenge – particularly given the respective abilities of Boks hookers Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss at the tackle area – but here, I take a look at the impact he had on this area of play during his cameo against Japan last week:

Below is Barclay’s first touch of the ball.  Tommy Seymour has just recovered a Laidlaw box-kick, and Barclay picks up possession in midfield.  He gives the pass along the line, and looks to support the ball-carriers.  I’ve highlighted the run he makes above.  He can see Scotland, with space and numbers up the left-hand side, have a good chance to attack.  As an openside, he knows he needs to get to the breakdown quickly, and makes the run ahead of the ball as per the red line to do so.  In this instance, he actually overruns play slightly, but he’s still among the first arriving players to secure possession at the ruck.


The next aspect of Barclay’s play I’d like to draw attention to is his line speed and energy in defence.  Fresh off the bench, he’s up early on the Japanese first-receiver, shuts down his options, and makes the tackle ahead of the gain line as shown in the pictures below.



Here he is again, up pressuring the Japanese fly-half and forcing him to play the ball early, deep and behind the gain line.  Again, the visitors fail to make ground.


This is Barclay just three phases later.  Another impressive substitute (Pat MacArthur) makes the tackle, and Barclay is straight over the ball.  Though he isn’t able to win a turnover, he slows the play down by an extra three or four seconds, and denies the Japanese the quick possession on which they thrive.


Below, Barclay has again come up out of the line at speed.  I criticised Tommy Seymour for similar on Wednesday, however, there are some key differences here.  Firstly, the options outside the Japanese fly-half are limited – the runners he has are forwards, and Scotland have plenty of defenders there to deal with them.  Secondly, rather than recklessly “selling himself”, Barclay has shown the fly-half his inside shoulder, encouraging him to run back towards the waiting Scottish tacklers.  Richie Gray has stepped in behind him to cover the “rush”, and is there to mop up the pieces.  The fly-half gladly takes that line as per the green arrow, and finds a rather beefy welcoming committee in the form of Gray and Al Dickinson. Again, Japan fail to make the gain line, the ball is slow, and Barclay is quickly back into the defensive line on the blindside.


Now, from the next phase, Barclay’s first over the ball at the breakdown, and this time, he wins the turnover.  Not only does he steal the ball, but he drives on an extra yard or two as well, as the second picture below shows.  This turnover leads to the kick downfield that exploits space in behind the Japanese, and results in Goromaru’s sin-binning.



Now again, in the last minute of the match, Barclay is the first arriving player to the tackle area in midfield.  He’s fast and full of purpose.


He gets himself over the ball again, and his body position is excellent.  He’s marked by the red arrow on the picture below (you can see his back sticking up and leg underneath the Japanese player) and you can see how it’s taken two or three Japanese forwards to clear him out as per the green arrows.  The clock shows five seconds between the first and second picture, and (though he’s obscured somewhat by the referee), the Japanese scrum-half is still searching for the ball as it’s not readily available.  Subsequently, he has to have several digs for it, and it’s slow, low-quality possession.


Finally, in the last play of the match, Barclay makes a tackle round the fringes of the ruck.  He’s straight back on his feet, over the ball, and “jackaling” for possession.  You can see from his body position, he’s going to be very tough for the arriving Japanese players to shift!


That ten-minute cameo typifies what Barclay is all about in defence.  Understandably, given he was coming off the bench, fresh, and eager to impress, his line speed was just a tad too quick on occasion.  His one missed tackle came as a result of rushing up on the outside too soon, and leaving his inside shoulder exposed.  You can see below he’s left flapping at Michael Broadhurst:


Overall, though, Barclay made seven tackles and forced one turnover in his ten minutes on the pitch.  With no backup at openside named in the squad for Sunday, he is likely to be tasked with completing the full eighty minutes.  That means the level of intensity he and the likes of fellow substitute Pat MacArthur (who chipped in with a very impressive eleven tackles in the same time period) showed will need to matched, bettered and prolonged against the Springboks.

His influence at the breakdown will be crucial too.  In his brief appearance on Saturday, the difference in the quality and speed of possession Japan were able to generate was notable, as I’ve highlighted above.  Not only that, but the Cherry Blossoms had to commit more men to the rucks to ensure they won the ball and got rid of Barclay.

I’m sure I speak for all Scottish fans when I say it’s great to see him back and firing on all cylinders in what has always been his favoured and most effective position.  We can also take comfort in the imminent return of the injury-plagued Ross Rennie – who is a truly world-class openside – and the continued form and tenacity of Chris Fusaro at Glasgow Warriors.

14 Responses

  1. Superb stuff again, Jamie.

    I met Barlcay at a wedding last year. As well as being a superb player, I can confirm he’s a very good bloke too.

    Here’s hoping he manages to unsettle the Boks on Sunday. They’ve selected a very strong side.

  2. Nice stuff, and good choice of player for the focus. He’s going to have his work cut out like you say. The breakdown was one of our weak points in the last 6N, so it would be great to go into the next with 3 fit choices at 7. At full strength and with all players in their preferred positions I think we really have a challenging squad now. Ideally we need 3 top players battling for each shirt, and we really are getting there (2 decent choices for almost all positions anyway) now. Oh for a good run of form and some luck with injuries!

  3. I wonder if we would do well to play two out an out 7’s. Barclay and Fussaro on the pitch at the same time.

  4. Another terrific effort, Jamie. I’m hugely in favour of getting the balance of the back-row right, rather than trying to force square pegs into round holes. If Barclay, Rennie and Fusaro are all injured, then by all means consider one of the 6s at our disposal to move across to the openside, but not under any other circumstances. The same applies to blindside and no.8. Your excellent analysis seems to confirm my intuition – Barclay played in a manner that smacks of McCaw, buying his defence precious seconds at almost every breakdown to re-organise themselves – invaluable imo

  5. Yes, I’d like to echo the other comments and say this was another really good article. I’ve been really impressed with the content the Scottish Rugby Blog team have put out over the last month actually and hope it continues. Rugby coverage on the newspaper websites really is poor by comparison.

    Good to see Barclay in the team, he looks re-energised by his move to Wales. Fusaro must get capped against Australia as we just can’t rely on Rennie to stay fit and we lose so much by shifting Brown there. I also think with Brown at 6 and a ‘proper 7’ at openside we’ll win a lot of turnovers as Brown showed in last year’s 6N it is a real strength to his game. If we can turnaround the breakdown performance of last year we should get results in the Spring because we have a dangerous backline when they all finally get to play together!

  6. Another excellent post, it really highlights just how necessary a balanced backrow is. Without the extra seconds to realign on defence we would get torn apart by the Springboks on defence.

    In fact, come the 6N and hopefully the return to fitness of Rennie I wonder if it might be a time to experiment as Wales did with two openside flankers.

  7. Thanks for the responses, chaps. This and the Seymour piece are the first two “analysis” articles I’ve attempted, and judging by the reaction, something I’ll be looking to do more of in future!

    Re the points raised above:

    I would like to see Fusaro capped against Australia, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere. It would be a great “measure” of where he’s at just now, and he’d be up against a very similar player of real quality in Michael Hooper.

    I’d still maintain that, fully fit, Rennie is our best option at openside. However, the regularity with which he picks up injuries(and the fact that those injuries are no longer recurring or related) suggests he may never be 100% for a prolonged period. Playing Barclay at six is an option with Rennie at seven as Wales do with Warburton and Tipuric, but I believe that will be reserved for specific game-plans/opposition if at all.

    Kelly Brown, as mentioned above, is very adept at the breakdown (as confirmed by the re-watching of Saturday’s game to compile this analysis), and normally a shoo-in given his consistency and versatility. He can and does “do a job” at seven, but we have far better options there as others have highlighted.

    This game will really suit the abrasiveness of Strokosch, Hamilton and co. Johnson’s rotation means Swinson misses out, which is a shame, as I felt he’d be likely to back-up last week’s stormer in the loose. We’d negotiate his lack of aerial presence by using Barclay as an extra lineout option too.

  8. No doubt Ross Rennie is one of the few players in the Scotland squad who are potentially world class. However, I feel he may be destined to be another Tom Rees, who England fans still sometimes lament as one of the world’s best players that never was. Rennie has at least made more international appearances but there are only so many season long injuries one player can take. I really hope this isn’t the case though and the SRU and Edinburgh have been very good at managing his fitness in the past.

    Fusaro and Barclay are both very good players. Barclay has all the experience but Fusaro is twice as hard.

  9. Top analysis. Agree with quality of this site vs newspapers.
    We seem to have developed a strong squad that is operating well as a team. It helps that Glasgow operates the squad system and that Johnson is mirroring it.
    Worried about the front row on Sunday – especially if Ford won’t hook.

  10. More of this please. Would have loved to see Fusaro on the bench. Cant be long untill he Gets the Nod alonside Barclay!

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