Barbarians must be preserved amid cluttered international calendar

Sadly, the Barbarians concept is under threat.

For decades, a Barbarians fixture was a timely reminder of everything that was good and wholesome about rugby; the shackles were loosened, allowing players to ignore inhibitions and run like the wind. The game acted as a much-needed punctuation mark in the grim, dim world of international football.

With it was the sheer joy of not having to bother to train for it, instead having a couple of big 'getting to know you during drinking game sessions' in the pub before you would go out on game day to do your adventurous best.

But now it has become all a bit serious.

Barbarians fixtures once involved the best playing against usually a touring Test team. Now, however, as the international calendar is so cluttered, the demands of international Test victory so overwhelming, the best suddenly are no longer available to put on the Baa-Baas jersey.

That serious nature was shown last weekend by the All Blacks-Barbarians match at Twickenham lacking home-grown United Kingdom based players. The Baa-Baas line-up was dominated by New Zealanders. Due to November Tests and club football, England and Premiership Rugby were reticent to release players for the match.

Barbarians coach Robbie Deans provided a telling post-match message, explaining the game is more important than the individual.

"If coaches can look a little bit beyond at the benefits that come out of it they'll actually be the benefactors over time, too," Deans said. "It's a great shame. In a year's time, there will be 23 of them out there playing the All Blacks with England. It was a great opportunity for those 23 players to experience playing at that level.

"It's the players' game, and sometimes coaches forget that. We produce stress when in actual fact if we retained this element the players would rise to the level you want. There's a lot of lessons in this sort of experience. It captures the essence of rugby."

Unlike some international coaches, Deans always had the mix right. He understands the importance of ensuring balance in a footballer's life. When he was Wallabies coach, he made certain that players weren't prisoners of their own hotel room. He made them go out, see the sights and enjoy the life of a touring footballer. What he said on the weekend was 100 percent correct.

He has also witnessed first-hand Barbarians matches in which the traditions have been forgotten. There was none of the flash, froth and bubble of countless Barbarians games when his Australian team finished their 2008 northern hemisphere tour at Wembley Stadium against the Baa-Baas, who were coached that day by Jake White and Eddie Jones.

Instead of the usual bonhomie and carefree football, this was a mean and nasty affair. Australia props Matt Dunning and Sekope Kepu suffered serious injuries, while old-time Barbarians were left wondering what was going on because punch-ups aren't the normal fare of these exhibitions.

The contrast was made even more stark with the big screen showing several marvellous movements from previous Barbarians games over the decades. The dazzling feats of David Campese and Gareth Edwards among many delighted spectators before they settled in to watch the 2008 version, which dropped back several notches to become a demolition derby.

Thankfully the Wallabies-Barbarians game a few weekends ago in Sydney brought back better memories. With Alan Jones involved, this was always going to be special. He stirred it up all week, and even opted for a nostalgic moment by reproducing the 'up the jumper' move made famous by the 1975 NSW Country team. The try was thwarted only by a ridiculously pedantic referee who had no sense of history.

But it was a fun day, with one of its biggest fans being Wallabies coach Michael Cheika. He commented at the media conference that the afternoon had reminded everyone of the good aspects of the game. He was excited that the crowd featured so many children, who, as in the good old days, swarmed onto the field after full-time chasing player autographs; that it was played in daylight hours; and that it had been played in the right spirit.

His theme was: "More of it."

More indeed. Those who believe the Barbarians are an anachronism should be ignored. The Barbarians concept must be preserved. It is an important release valve.