Barbarians prove they are worthy of the international stage

The Barbarians may not have won their Twickenham encounter with the All Blacks, but they put up a valiant fight. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Playing without pressure is a rarity in modern, professional rugby but the Barbarians proved on Saturday that if you go back to the fundamental, binding essence of the sport, then you can still put together a performance to trouble the world's best side.

That was Robbie Deans' message after he saw his team eventually fall to a 31-22 defeat to New Zealand, having led 17-10 at half time following a week where the player plucked from various parts of the southern hemisphere bonded through off-field socialising and a pride in doing the jersey proud. That phrase -- doing the jersey proud -- is constantly rolled out across all sports the world over, yet the way the players talk of their fondness for the Barbarians is in its own way, unique.

But what was apparent in the aftermath of their match on Saturday, was the heartfelt nature of the players' affection for the week-long experience. Andy Ellis, the matchday captain, talked of how he is still on Whatsapp groups with Barbarians teams from years past; Deans is on them, enjoying how the players keep in touch despite having just spent a handful of days together.

These fundamental building blocks of amateur rugby, the camaraderie experienced in local rugby clubs the world over risk being cast as anachronisms in a game dominated by financial figures, but that was what the Barbarians spoke animatedly about after the match.

"This is the way rugby should be, regardless of what culture you're in," Deans said. "It's the players game and I think that sometimes coaches forget that and we produce stress when in actual fact if we retained this sort of outlook to the game the players would rise to the level that you want. So that there's a lot of learnings in this sort of experience.

"It captures the essence of rugby, when rugby was invented this is what it was all about. It is that it's the ultimate team sport, caters to all shapes and sizes, and all cultures. It doesn't matter which part of the world you go to, the door's open and you've got something in common. I've witnessed all year the banter with last year's group, and perhaps not ironically, most of them were in the [Super Rugby] playoffs. They all grew from the experience."

Ellis spoke of how it was a throwback to when he was seven years old, playing rugby in Hagley Park for the love of the game. "It's pretty special [that freedom] and it's really hard to capture in the modern professional age but you get it with the Barbarians," Ellis said. "It's my third time being involved. Everyone brings their individuality to the team and that's what makes it so special."

This is not to say the Barbarians were completely laissez-faire. They did have tactics, plans drawn up during the week, to, as they put it, ask questions of the All Blacks. Will Greenwood, who was part of the Barbarians' coaching team, was allowed five 'special plays'. Two were used, including the NFL-style tactic for the final try where they effectively snapped the ball for the penalty.

For someone like man-of-the-match Kwagga Smith, the experience of playing for the Barbarians has been a hugely valuable one, on a personal level. Last year he was involved when the squad were in the Czech Republic; he was shy, he stayed quiet but the group brought him out of his shell. A standout season with the Lions followed, alongside his Sevens duties, and on Saturday he was the star player on a field packed with internationals.

"To play against New Zealand who are the world No. 1 and just to play for fun with no pressure on you as a team but just to express yourself and play for each other is special," Smith said.

"In the normal game we make it much too complicated and it doesn't need to be. For us it was just express yourself, you are all world class players so if you give it your all you play for each other you just your opportunities it makes a huge difference."

While the Barbarians are labelled a relic of the amateur days by some critics, the 21st century beast can learn a thing or two from their relaxed attitude. The way the players spoke afterwards, and their unwavering passion and pride at what they had achieved during the week -- on and off the field -- cements the importance and relevance of the Barbarians. The Whatsapp groups will rumble on way beyond this squad's time together, but the memories will continue to grow and inspire the class of 2017.

"The Barbarians are thriving, it's alive and well," Deans said. "This group has been great, the jersey means a lot to them and it's a week that is very special in a player's life. We're proud of the way they came together. We wanted them to play without fear, and they did that.

"From the perspective of the place of Barbarians in rugby, it's right up there still and you only have to take to these guys to know that."