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.