Six Nations 2016: 'Prodigal' John Barclay's return 'not before time'

John Barclay in action for Scotland in their pre-World Cup warm-up Test against Ireland last August
Barclay won the last of his 45 caps before last year's World Cup but missed the cut for the tournament

John Barclay's return to the Scotland back row for his first Six Nations game in almost four years is not just a tribute to his talent but a testament to his psychology.

In his heart of hearts Barclay thought it was over for him at Test level. He thought he was done. The mood music coming from Vern Cotter and his management team more or less confirmed it, but Barclay couldn't bring himself to make an announcement and throw in the towel.

He hung on more in hope than expectation and now he has his reward.

Consider the journey. Cotter brought five back-row forwards to the World Cup and Barclay wasn't one of them. Cotter parachuted in a sixth during the tournament and Barclay was overlooked again.

On Saturday, against England, he will play blind-side. Only a few short months ago he was, at best, fifth choice in that position. Ryan Wilson was ahead of him. So were Josh Strauss, Alasdair Strokosch and Blair Cowan. The vibe was that Cotter would sooner have moved heaven and earth than move Barclay into contention, but here he is.

John Barclay runs with the ball for Scotland in their 2012 Six Nations match against Italy in Rome
Barclay's last Six Nations match was in Italy in 2012, when Scotland lost to suffer a 'whitewash'

Strokosch's retirement has helped, so has Wilson's indifferent form and Strauss' lack of game-time. Barclay warranted a start even if all those guys were around, though. He's been playing number eight for his club, Scarlets, and he's been playing well. Not just in the weeks before this selection, but for months and years.

The prodigal has returned and not before time. He's in and Scotland now go to war in the back row with two open-side flankers - Barclay and John Hardie - as against England's two blind-side bruisers - Chris Robshaw and James Haskell.

The breakdown was a recurring theme when Cotter spoke on Thursday at Murrayfield, not just the personnel he is deploying but the coach he has brought in to add "ideas and detail" to that critical phase of play - the ever-impressive Richie Gray, previously of Gala and South Africa and now of Scotland. The return of another prodigal, if you will.

Scotland's breakdown coach Richie Gray catches the ball in training ahead of the England game
Richie Gray, who worked with South Africa at the World Cup, is helping Scotland with the breakdown

Apart from Barclay's omission at the expense of Cowan - who started against Australia at the World Cup - there were no surprises in Scotland's team, no nasty shock as regards the excellent Mark Bennett, who mercifully for the home attack, is fit to play.

Everything else is as you would expect and everything on the day is as obvious as hell. This England team will bring grunt on a grand scale to Murrayfield. Eddie Jones has not picked an imaginative team, but a big team, a team to establish physical dominance and to batter Scotland into submission.

Cotter knows it and spoke of "combining energy forces" to try to combat it. "Physicality is something we've been working on over the last year or so," he said. "We have to have total clarity in what we're doing. They (England) will want to dominate us but I don't see why we shouldn't take them on at their strong points."

The days before a Six Nations opener are always blue-sky days in Scotland. Hope has survived through the years despite the kickings. It's an extraordinary thing, this optimism in the face of such failure. It begs the question of what this rugby nation would be like if it ever had real momentum to bite on.

There's newfound hope despite a whitewash last time round. Despite all sorts of things, to be honest.

Bennett, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray have never won a Six Nations match. Tommy Seymour has never won a Six Nations match at Murrayfield. Greig Laidlaw has three wins from 20 in the championship, Richie Gray five from 22, Ross Ford eight from 45. Scotland have not scored a try against England at Murrayfield since 2004. They have only scored two tries against England at Murrayfield in Six Nations history.

Scotland team - individual Six Nations records
Stuart Hogg: won 3 out of 19Al Dickinson: won 4 / 20
Sean Maitland: won 2 / 6Ross Ford: 8 / 45
Mark Bennett: won 0 / 5Willem Nel: 0 / 0
Matt Scott: won 3 / 15Richie Gray: 5 / 22
Tommy Seymour: won 1 / 7Jonny Gray: 0 / 6
Finn Russell: won 0 / 4John Barclay: 3 / 20
Greig Laidlaw: won 3 / 20John Hardie: 0 / 0
Dave Denton: 3 / 15

That hope, though. It's not unfounded, far from it. Scotland possess an attack that can do damage if it has the platform. They have better men in place this year to establish that platform than they've had for some years.

WP Nel is a big addition to the front row, Hardie a key influence in the back row. Gray, the coach, has been microscopic in his analysis of Scotland's defensive breakdown. Gray's arrival has allowed Matt Taylor more freedom to focus on fixing the weaknesses in defence.

Centre Matt Scott said that the attention to detail has never been as high. "When we came into camp we identified defence as an area we needed to improve. We saw that Ireland only conceded two tries in last year's Six Nations (it was actually three). By contrast, we conceded into double figures (11). We can't be conceding 25-30 points in games and expect to win."

That's the big puzzler for Scotland. Can their defence hold out? They shipped 40 points against Ireland at the end of last year's Six Nations and 30-plus to South Africa, Samoa and Australia at the World Cup. In the biggest games they're making life so difficult for themselves.

Scott said something else that resonated. He spoke of learning lessons, not just in defence, but in terms of handling emotion. He went back to the last Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield, a 20-0 drubbing in 2014.

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Highlights: Scotland 0-20 England

"The boys were so geed-up before that game," he recalled. "We were tear-ing up in the changing room before the game and I remember thinking I was going to go out and have an amazing game. I thought I was invincible. It was a surreal feeling of being helpless on the pitch. That's when the emotion can over-ride things and affect your play.

"We were way off the mark. We couldn't get our attack structure going. It just felt like we were 15 individuals on the pitch. It was an awful experience.

"I think we've learned from that, learned to say, 'Yes, it's a Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield and there's going to be fire and brimstone but we have to take a step back and put our cool heads on."

Barclay is one of those cool heads - an experienced leader in a team that still doesn't know enough about winning. They get another chance on Saturday. Despite everything, hope springs.

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