They are one of the most recognisable teams in rugby with their black and white hooped shirts and odd socks, but the Barbarians recent two matches against England and the British and Irish Lions have cast doubt on their relevance in the modern game.
Their performance against an inexperienced England was extremely poor and, Kahn Fotuali’i’s try apart, they were almost non-existent for much of the second half against the Lions.
Considering the Barbarians squad was littered with some of rugby’s biggest stars, it does not do the invitational side’s brand reputation any good to be losing these games without much of a fight.
And that is what they are: a brand. The BaaBaas need to make money, and to make money they need to play. One must wonder whether the players’ hearts are 100% in it at the end of a punishing season and with minimal preparation. It would be extremely interesting to hear – truthfully – whether the established players turning out for the Barbarians consider it a genuine honour or a bit of a hassle when they come calling.
The BaaBaas have a rich history and are perhaps the last remnant of an amateur game in the professional era, with players from around the world still placing an emphasis on playing off-the-cuff rugby and having a good time off the field.
However in this day and age, with players increasingly struggling to find time to recover and take a break from long, physically demanding seasons, the question must be asked as to the relevance of the famous invitational side.
Firstly, let’s look at the positives of the Barbarians. Although there is an occasional ‘World XV’ that comes together, the Baa Baas are still the only side in the world where players from any country come together and express themselves.
For Southern Hemisphere players, it is the nearest thing to the Lions. There can be no doubt they relish the opportunity to play alongside the guys they normally knock seven bells out of. As a northern hemisphere fan, let’s count our lucky stars there is not a serious SANZAR equivalent of the Lions.
The Barbarians can also consider their amateur ethos a blessing as well as a hindrance. Players tend to go out and have a few beers when they meet up as a squad, and although the training in the build-up to a Test match is intense, they enjoy letting their hair down with their mates – which is what rugby is all about.
But where the Lions have exploded as a brand, taking thousands of fans with them when they travel, the Barbarians simply do not have the same draw. A Barbarians tour match rarely gets pulses racing and it may in fact be a hindrance that they play quite regularly.
Perhaps if they were to tour properly with a real aim of winning a Test series every 4 years, as the Lions do, then BaaBaas matches could well be something to relish for the supporter.
It also does not help that they rarely play international sides at full strength. Because of the timing of the Barbarians visits, the opposition tend to use the match to blood youngsters and try different combinations.
Of course this is helpful to young players development but it makes the match less of a spectacle for supporters and, I expect, provides less motivation for BaaBaas players who would rather take on the very best.
The Barbarians have been part of some of the greatest moments in rugby history – notably Gareth Edwards’ try against New Zealand – but try to think of a genuinely memorable Barbarians match in the last 10 years and you will struggle.
With players placing their nation, club, the Lions, and possibly even rest-time above travelling with the BaaBaas, the famous side must re-evaluate their position in world rugby and think up a new business and playing strategy if they are to continue in the modern game.
Otherwise the great club will suffer a slow, unfitting decline.
By Tom Macleod (@TMacSport)