Tongan Bear was the ringleader – a ‘tough $£#&’ who devised the signals, the special handshake, the celebration. There were drones, analysts, and a 92-year-old head honcho. They came from 12 countries and overcame a pin badge shortage to crush their opposition. This is how a man known as ‘Batman’, led the Barbarians to victory.
In a nondescript hotel function room in west London, head coach Pat Lam gathers an assortment of rugby players into a circle. It’s the Wednesday before the Barbarians face England and all morning the squad has been slowly drifting into the room to have their pictures taken, grab their stash from the makeshift physio area, and have a first meeting before facing the media. The quintet from Toulon – Chris Ashton, Argentinean Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Fijians Semi Radradra, Malakai Fekitoa and Josua Tuisova – drafted in after their shock Top14 quarter-final loss, are among the late comers, having taken a private jet from the south of France.
Aside from some twos and threes; the two Welshmen Justin Tipuric and Rhodri Williams; the Scots Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell; the Connacht trio of Ultan Dillane, Denis Buckley and Niyi Adeolokun, it’s a proper hotchpotch of nationalities – 12 at the last count. “I want everyone to tell me your name, what your mother calls you, your nickname and what you want to get out of this,” says Pat, addressing his squad for the first time.
A brief schoolboy silence, before the answers roll. The former All Black and Gloucester tighthead John Afoa kicks it off, ‘John’ to his mum, ‘Animal’ to others.
“Corcho,” says Juan, “because when I was young I had a big head and a little body, like a Champagne cork.”
More nicknames. “Tongan Bear,” offers Loni Uhila, Clermont’s Tongan prop, “Because I’m a tough cunt.”
“Heavyweight champion,” he adds, “you can call me that too.”
“Muscles,” offers Finn, “because, well, I’m quite big.”
Pat shares his too. “It’s Batman,” he says, “because when you’re with islanders they often change the ‘P’ to ‘B’ and in Samoa that happened a lot, so ‘Pat Lam’ slowly just became Batman.”
For others, insight comes from what their mother’s call them. “ATM,” laughs Tatafu Polota-Nau, the Leicester and Wallaby hooker.
Some have more than one. “Tips, Maggot, Big Nose,” lists Welsh backrower Justin. “Probably have a few more before the end of the week, but there you go.”
Responses to what they want from the week are varied but with a familiar theme: ‘honour’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘beer’ all on repeat. Some are more fervent about the opponents than other. “As a proud Welshman, I’d love to beat the English,” says Dragons-bound, Bristol scrum-half Rhodri Williams. Englishman Chris Ashton, concurs, “I’d fucking love to beat England,” he admits.
Benjamin Kayser is one to go a bit deeper. “Since I’ve become a father, I’ve tended to play more for family in the crowd,” he explains. “My dad doesn’t get to too many games, but when I said I was playing for the Barbarians, he said ‘I’m coming, but don’t tell mum’. The Barbarians means a lot to people. We’ve got a heck of a team, and hopefully by the end of this, we’ll be closer human beings and, if we can win…”
Luke McAlister admits this could be his last-ever game.
As with every Barbarians game, overseeing proceedings is 92-year-old Micky Steele-Bodger. He apologises for taking someone’s ‘dinner tray’ by way of explaining the zimmer frame. And then explains his name too. “I was born Michael, but couldn’t remember if it was ‘a’ before ‘e’, so just went by the name Micky instead.
“If you lot play as good as you talk, then we’ll be okay,” he adds.
He’s there to present the official invitations and ties, but, before that, Pat talks through his team philosophy. It begins, perhaps as you’d expect, with a clip of Gareth Edwards’ 1973 try. It would seem obvious but for the fact he stops it before the Welsh legend touches down, instead rewinding it to the beginning when the ball is collected, deep in the Barbarians’ half. “That was from a kick and look how many players got back,” he says, in front of a frozen screen full of Barbarian players in their own 22. “That’s team culture.”
The briefing continues with footage of his Connacht and Bristol side showing their attacking verve, pushing deep into the opponent’s half, and working collectively. He’s pulled out moments and instances from a wide range of matches from Ealing to Leinster to get his point across. This isn’t a presentation that’s just been thrown together. On a flipchart, the kind of words you expect in a professional modern rugby environment are evident: ‘Explosion’, ‘No Fear’, ‘Clarity’, ‘Culture’.
But encircled in a cloud bubble is writ large the key to it all, ‘Relationships’. “I’m glad everyone talked about getting beers,” he says, emphasising the point.
Next on the agenda. The handshake. “At the start of every day I want you all to greet each other with a handshake, and so I’d like you to come up with a Barbarians one – John Afoa and Tongan Bear (who, Pat notices, is already trialling a prototype during the meeting) – I’ll leave you to come up with one.”
Micky begins with the presentations, and, before the ties are handed to the players, there’s a quick apology. “Sorry we’re running out of pins, so we can’t give you that many.”
Even so, the allocation is three pins, which seems fair. Each presentation is often accompanied with a quip. “Speaking better today?,” Micky asks Finn. “Do people understand you?”
“How tall are you? Goodness me,” he remarks to the 6ft 8in Tongan-born Wallaby lock Sateki Timani.
As Rhodri steps up for his, Pat adds his own personal anecdote. “He’s born just two miles from Gareth Edwards, and he’s a number nine too.” No pressure there then.
The pins are a big deal, as they even have their own back story. “If you look at the pins, they’re quite simple, but they’ve always had a fault,” says Micky to the group. “There’s the springbok for South Africa, the fern for New Zealand, but when we had the first ones struck back in 1930, the Australia rugby union hadn’t formed, so we used the waratah to represent New South Wales instead. When we toured later and the Australian union had formed, they asked us to change it, but we had to say no because we’d struck so many already and couldn’t afford another lot.
“We’re losing to England 9-7 from the games we’ve played,” he continues, changing topic. “I’d like us to get one nearer, if you could. Not least because I have English friends and they keep giving me the two fingers. So I’d be happy if you could get that job done on Sunday.”
Pat takes over and begins to talk about the captaincy, but Micky cuts in. “Tell them about when you were captain,” he insists. “We’d had a big week and found ourselves 25-0 down at half-time,” responds Pat. “At that point, we just said we had to start playing and we won 40-25 and I was lucky enough to score the last try. And then I hung up my boots.”
Just as in comparing Rhodri with Gareth Edwards, Pat is a master at raising the bar, so he follows his own captain’s anecdote by announcing Juan to follow in his footsteps. A clearly honoured Argentinian, he finishes his brief speech with, ‘let’s fucking cap it all off with a massive game’.
With the first team meeting over, the Barbarians complete further intros, before heading down for lunch, with only those with media duties or work to do staying behind. Pat has brought in almost his complete set of Bristol backroom staff who hit the laptops as soon as the meeting is over. Supporting Pat is his club forwards’ coach Jonathan Thomas, analyst Stuart Powell and a man nicknamed, ‘Angry Little Irishman’. Anyone who saw Bristol’s assistant coach Conor McPhillips play will understand the name. “I was never the biggest, the strongest, the best, but I was pretty determined,” says the former No.9, “what I lacked in talent, I made up with a will to win.”
Conor was released by Connacht at the age of 28 after just five years as a professional. “Being told I wasn’t going to be a professional anymore was tough,” he admits, “but if I was in the coach’s shoes, it was probably right decision.”
Instead of taking up offers in Italy and the Championship, he returned to Dublin to begin a coaching career with a secondary school. Two years later, Connacht were looking to appoint their first-ever analyst and, with Conor’s reputation as a ‘rugby nause’, he returned to the province. Two further years and Pat walked through the Sportsground doors. Initially continuing his role as an analyst, he was then promoted to assistant attack coach. “Pat told me later that he’d actually wanted to bring his analyst from the Blues with him, he wanted to get rid of me,” admits Conor, “but he couldn’t because I was under contract, it was a good job he stuck with me.”
Pat took him to Bristol and then to the Barbarians. “It’s all still sinking in to be honest,” he admits. “You see these guys on TV and you might even stop to get a photo with them, but I know what I want to do, I trust my rugby knowledge and getting my point across and maybe they can pick up something new from me. It’s something you dream about happening, but it doesn’t hit home until you’re here. You still get goosebumps when you see that 1973 try.”
As we chat to Conor, the media arrive to grill a chosen few. Aside from Pat, Chris [Ashton] is the main drawcard, with the press eager to learn his thoughts on Eddie Jones, returning to England, and the ‘Ash Splash’. It’s the latter that causes the most confusion, as the wing says Martin Johnson had texted him asking to do the ‘Ash Splash’. ‘They want to know if you were joking’, the Barbarians head of PR asks Chris, now at lunch with the team. ‘Are you serious? Of course I was joking,’ he responds.
Friday. With two days of training sessions, London sightseeing, a lot of coffees and a few beers under their belt, the side gather in the morning, after the biggest pre-game night out, a 70s-themed fancy dress party. “I’m a little bit dusty at the minute mate,” admits Newcastle’s Cornish Fijian Josh Matavesi, as we board the bus to the Hammersmith training ground. “We’ve definitely accelerated the off-field bonding,” he adds, referring the night before. Late one? “No comment.”
After a stellar season with the Falcons, centre Josh is keen to make his mark in a squad he admits to feeling a tad in awe of. “Just look through the bus: Semi, Josua – I feel a little bit out of place,” he admits. “I’m trying to take as much as I can from these players, so I can take it back and be a better player next season.”
For a player capped by Fiji, while still in the academy at Exeter Chiefs, the Barbarians is the latest stop in an already incredible career. Cornish-born to a Fijian father who toured the Duchy with the Fiji Barbarians, only to return for a job in mining and marry a local girl, Josh’s accent at times flips between Fijian and Cornish mid-sentence. He left Exeter at 19 for Racing Metro, returning to England a season later with Worcester, then to Wales with Ospreys and finally his current resting place of Newcastle, part of a strong islander contingent. “People think I’m about 33,” he says. “Things didn’t work out for me at Exeter, but Rob Baxter is awesome and, looking back now, I might have done things differently. Going to Paris at 19 was a big move for a kid from Cornwall who’d only played for Exeter, a club 40 minutes up the road. It was challenging at Racing because you had Francois Steyn and Juan Martin Hernandez, so it was more of a learning experience. Every time I got picked I was just happy to be on the pitch, I just didn’t want to mess up.”
The bus soundtrack is lively, I’m in the Mood for Dancing and You to Me are Everything providing the backing music for our chat with Josh. “The music is always going with so many island boys on this tour, there’s always a nice vibe,” says Josh. “It’s the same with Newcastle, we’ve got no cliques. The islander boys do stay together but everyone is invited – so everyone turns up for barbecues, kids’ parties – it was my daughter’s birthday a couple of weeks ago and the whole squad was there.
“We’ve got that environment where we’re so happy to be there, we just enjoy each other’s company,” he says of Newcastle, but it could also apply to the Barbarians.
His performances in the midfield for Newcastle, and a turn at fly-half against Wasps, had given him a chance with Fiji in the summer Tests, but a family engagement took precedent. “My brother’s getting married on the day of the first Test, and they’re only playing two, so John [McKee, Fiji head coach] said by the time I get there, get over the jet lag, I’d miss the second Test. So, hopefully, if I’m playing well I’ll get a chance in November.”
Josh’s name has repeatedly been used in Pat’s team chats, with his crash-ball physique, coupled with his Fijian handling skills, meaning he can not only make the holes, but also put his team-mates through them. “Pat likes to use his 12,” he says. “Whenever we played against Connacht, Bundee Aki was always the top carrier. I like getting involved though, I want to get my hands on the ball as soon as I can.”
The bus pulls in to Latymer Upper School. Scott Quinnell is waiting with his Sky van, aside from his usual punditry, on this occasion he has first-hand Barbarians experience, and during a break in training he addresses the team to share his thoughts.
Either side of that, they run through defensive and attacking patterns with analyst Stuart’s drone tracking their every move. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a drone being used for the Barbarians, and I’ve been with them for ten years,” physio Tim Atter tells us.
It’s another sign of Pat’s intentions with the squad. Especially when compared with previous coaches, as we’re also told, “Robbie Deans just got his coaches together a couple of minutes before addressing the squad and said, ‘right, how are we going to do this?’”
Approaches vary, from Robbie’s relaxed attitude to Dean Ryan’s more structured regime (which did get results, they beat England 39-29). Pat, with his Barbarians playing experience, seems to have found a blend of the two.
With the main patterns covered, the team practice penalty moves, with one American Football set-up seeing All Black Victor receive the ball from behind scrum-half Rhodri before hurling it, one-handed, to either wing.
Watching, is South African and Clermont lock, Flip van der Merwe, who has just found out he won’t be able to play at the weekend. “I’ve been selected twice,” he says. “The first time I wasn’t allowed to play because of some insurance issue and now it’s because of suspension – we got a letter sent to the Barbarians last night. They [the French Rugby Federation] had suspended me but it was supposed to be for next season so I was free to play, and now they’ve changed that.
“I’m gutted, I’ve still had a good week and I’m learning a lot of lessons from Pat – the way he comes across is a very good way of coaching. Very, very good. Organising the Barbarians is like herding cats, but he’s got a good way of doing that. His philosophy is good and simple and is easy enough to implement on the team, it’s the same thing he used at Connacht, the same thing he used at Bristol, he can just transfer it. He’s not shy to share it either.”
Considering the night before, the training session is impeccable. “It was a late night,” says Flip, “but everyone was told to be responsible. Nobody has been late for a meeting and you don’t see a ball dropped in training – it’s amazing. Go to a normal training and balls are dropped all the time.”
Sharing a room with Victor, he’s found a kindred spirit. “He’s funny,” he says of the backrower. “He’s an intelligent man and conversation is good, it’s not only rugby, guys and girls we talk about – we’ve shared some life philosophies after a couple of beers too.”
And Flip would have a few of those. At 33, the South African is in the latter stages of his rugby playing days, and is readying himself for the next stage. He’s opened a coffee shop as a hobby, is finishing a Masters in Business Intelligence and Analytics. “It’s data analysing,” he clarifies, “it’s how you can transform your data for business efficiency.”
As a South African, the Barbarians mean a lot to Flip. “It’s a tap on the shoulder that you’ve done the hard yards in your career,” he says. “I was unfortunate enough to be in a team that lost to the Barbarians about eight years ago. There were a bunch of young guys playing their first games for South Africa – some of them their only games – but we were still expected to win. Every time you put on a Springbok jersey you’re expected to win.
“During segregation, when we weren’t allowed to play international sides, the only place the world could see some great South African players was playing for the Barbarians.”
Training finishes with a game of cricket before boarding the bus. The afternoon has been set aside for the Amazing Race – a series of random challenges across the capital varying from ‘earning money as a busker’ to ‘finding a pelican’ to ‘taking a selfie with a guardsman’.
As Chris Ashton heads back to the bus, we ask about his media briefing. “I thought English people got jokes?” he says of the ‘Ash Splash’ query. “I didn’t expect it, actually,” he says of the press interest, “I completely forgot what it was like with the press in England, I definitely threw a few balls up there for them to hit and they definitely hit them by the look of things. “But they’re alright and a lot of times I don’t help myself, so I don’t mind,” he says as he takes his seat behind Finn Russell on the coach.
“I only knew Greig before this week,” admits Finn, as we turn our questioning to the Scottish fly-half, just as the music gets cranked up and the islanders start banging on the coach roof in time with the beat. “A Barbarians call-up is a nice way of finishing my time at Glasgow, and a win over England would be good,” he says, as he’ll be joining Racing Metro for the new season. “The squad is in a good place,” he says, with a yawn. Dusty? “It wasn’t too bad, about 2ish,” he responds, before going back on topic. “With this squad, jeez, some of them are the best in the game, I’ve got the easiest job in the world, pass them the ball and let them do their thing.
“Pat’s good too,” he says, “a bit similar to Dave [Rennie] at Glasgow in the style of rugby they want, so I’m quite comfortable. It’s a bit like learning a foreign language with all the different calls, and it’s tough to learn them within the space of three training sessions, but we’re getting there.”
The former stonemason, who began his working life at 16, spending three years working from 7.30am until 4pm before signing pro forms, admits time with the Barbarians reminds him of why he played rugby in the first place. “You watch these guys throw the ball about, and this is what rugby’s all about,” he says, “throwing the ball for enjoyment and having a few beers too.”
He also takes time to look forward to his next move. “I’m excited,” he says about joining Racing Metro. “In my whole professional career, I’ve only ever played for Glasgow and Scotland, and even then the majority of the Scottish team is from Glasgow. I’ve been in my comfort zone for a long time. It’s why I wanted to head over to France and have a crack, learn a new language, meet a new group of boys and dive into a new country.
“Besides, if all the players stayed in Scotland, then none of the young players would come through, you’d just have two in each position.”
The bus pulls in to the hotel on Park Lane, the team adjourn to the team meeting room where Pat announces that, due to a certain level of ‘dustiness’, the Amazing Race will be cancelled so they can catch up on some sleep or just relax, explore a little bit of London or get a rub down from team masseur Wayne Mortimer.
While we wait to see what the players decide to do instead, we chat to Wayne. Formerly with Cardiff Blues – it was Dai Young who took him to the Barbarians first – he’s been with the club since 2008. As a black belt in karate, Wayne has been making light work of some serious lumps of muscle put in front of him. Waiting for his next patient, he tells us about the upcoming shirt presentation. “Only two people have missed a shirt presentation,” he says, “and that was Schalk Brits and Marco Wentzel, when we played the Lions in 2013 in Hong Kong and they got stuck in mainland China. They’d gone over to do the big bungee jump and have a bit of a gamble and I think they got held up at customs. So they hired a helicopter to come back and even tried to get the guy to land on the hotel rooftop but they wouldn’t do it.
“They’re the only ones I’ve seen miss it,” he repeats, adding, “aside from Mike Tindall, but he was a coach…
“They used to give the shirts to the boys after the presentation, until Martyn Williams left his in the hotel so he didn’t have it for the game – ever since then the players can try the shirts on, but then we take them back until the match.”
Chris turns up for some treatment, giving us a chance to pick up from before. “It’s nice to play against England,” admits the ex-Saracens wing, “it’s something I’ve not done before. But I couldn’t come here with an agenda, especially the way the Baa-Baas is, it would be very difficult coming here with a point to prove. I just want to enjoy it, if I’m being honest. I want to have a good involvement in the game, but I’m here to enjoy the whole week.”
How’s your roomie Finn? “People have an opinion of you from the way you play, they think ‘I bet he’s like this’ and Finn is every bit what I thought he would be – a really good, down-to-earth guy.”
Chris’s name is the one often given by his fellow Barbarians when asked who’s surprised them most – they all like him. “I just like to win,” he says, explaining perceptions. “I try to do it with a smile on my face and sometimes that can be offensive to people.
“Say if you drop a ball or something happens, it was never intended by anyone, it was a mistake, it was never meant to happen, so if you dwell on it, I feel it has a negative impact on you. Although games can be frustrating, personally I always want to see the better side of things and look for the next opportunity.
“I don’t know why it is,” he continues, pondering the question of his reputation. “Finn said to me, in Scotland, ‘a cunt’s a cunt, but if you’re a good cunt it’s a good thing and you’re a good cunt’. And I said, ‘I think I’m happy with that’. I don’t know, I think it’s definitely to do with the way I play and diving over trylines can be seen as an irritant for people, but I just try and enjoy what I’m doing, otherwise it’s time to stop.”
Any timeframe on that? “Some lads are very fortunate, like Isa Nacewa with Leinster – he’s 35, won both cups and finished,” says Chris. “You’ve got to be lucky to get on the end of that, a lot of things have got to go your way to go out at the top. Then you see players like Vincent Clerc who’s 37 and could easily play again or Chris Masoe who’s 39 and just signed again. When you get to that age, you’ve got to be very lucky to be doing that because there’s always lads coming through, I think when you’re not playing all the time, that’s when it gets hard.”
Some Barbarians return to their rooms, others, like Benjamin, head for a trim at the barbers, while captain Juan is doing a bit of shopping. “I’ve picked up some toys for the kids, they’re five, three and eight months,” he explains, as we walk with the Argentinean backrower. “And some boots for my wife. I’ve now got to get some groceries as they’ve all just arrived at a hotel in Paddington so I need to get supplies in.”
His final ever game is looming, nervous? “I’m at peace,” he says, as we walk past the multi-million pound townhouses of London. “I have done everything, I’ve prepared mentally and physically for this to be my last year and I really enjoyed the whole last year so I’m ready to go.”
Ever the gent, Juan is happy to chat as we fire questions at him while he tries to navigate the maze of streets. Favourite Toulon moment? “It has to be the double,” he says, “that year, when we got back to Toulon and presented the title to the town, that was unreal. There was a sea of people going crazy.”
Best players he’s played with? “Lot of guys, Jonny [Wilkinson], of course, such a good friend. Carl Hayman – I’m going to be naming all the guys I became good friends with. Matt Giteau, Chris Masoe, and I was so surprised that I had the chance to play for one year with George Smith, what a player, what a guy.”
How good is his Toulon colleague Semi Radradra? “I’ve been lucky to play beside him every week and he is a rugby superstar,” he says. “He could dominate the rugby pitch for years to come. Everything about him is so good. He has the physical attributes, the brain, the work ethic, he understands the game. He’s complete.”
Being captain? “It’s just an honour to be here, and an honour that a guy like Pat Lam thinks I could be captain of the team. I’m very blessed. I’m very lucky.”
Saturday. A light morning training session on Hyde Park by some of rugby’s global superstars stirs little interest in passing tourists. The drone doesn’t come out of the box for this one. One avid watcher is Tim Allnutt, the longest-serving team manager in Pro14 and another of Pat’s trust lieutenants. “When Pat arrived, he travelled the four corners of Connacht with his family,” explains Tim. “He met the locals in different communities and worked out what made supporters tick and how we could get them to buy into what we were about to try and do.
“Then when we started to go out as a team into the community, we wouldn’t just get off the bus and throw a ball around, we had different groups doing different drills with kids, followed by some more games and speeches. It was really organised and it gave us a real presence in the community.
“In that first season, the idea was to build it slowly as we had a five-year plan, but we won it in year three. He believed in his philosophy and kept going over and over it with the players, it was a really different game plan. We didn’t kick it, from the 22 we were carrying even when some supporters would be yelling ‘kick it’ – but we stuck at it and we won by starving sides of possession.
“We changed people’s beliefs in what we could do, it was exciting to watch and it showed in the gates – it was the ticket to have in town. It was a magical year.
“The Barbarians is important to him,” adds Tim, pointing to Pat directing the players on the park. “It’s in his DNA, he wants to succeed, he’s not just flippant about it, he’s putting a lot of work into it and you can see that from the training this week.”
Session over, team photo, and we finally speak to Pat. “It’s such an extraordinary challenge to bring everyone together in five days with three training runs,” he says. “I obviously did work with Samoa and Pacific Islanders before, so when you only have so much time on and off the field, you learn you have to prioritise.
“I flip it back to when I played my best rugby and that was because I had a clear idea of the bigger picture, of the game plan, and a clear idea of my role within it. That way you can then go out there and express yourself – that was the main objective with these guys. Give them a framework, so they can go out and just do what they’re good at.”
Only signing up to the Barbarians as head coach six weeks before the match – originally, he was set to play a supporting role to Robbie Deans – he worked his prep around his Bristol commitments. “I started to look at who might be involved, it’s a little bit like fantasy rugby, I knew the kind of players I wanted, and I had so many agents getting in touch that I just said to put everyone on standby, because you never knew what was going to happen in the play-offs. Nobody expected Toulon to lose, so that opened up Chris, Semi, Josua, Juan and Fekitoa. Ma’a Nonu was keen, but his kids had a production on Thursday that he had to be at.”
‘Culture’ gets more than one outing when Pat talks of his approach, even the 70s party had a few challenges thrown in to get people to lose their inhibitions and mingle. His backroom team, he says, were first picks and, indeed the only viable option for success. “I needed people who knew me well, that I could trust and get us to where we needed to be in three or four days.”
The success at Connacht, followed by promotion with Bristol, has ensured his career is in an upward trajectory. Victory over England would be another feather in his cap – and is certain to have those in New Zealand taking notes, with his sacking at the Blues seven years ago now a distant memory. “Coaching is like life,” he says, “you get the tough times, the learnings. I went straight from playing for the Barbarians on the weekend to joining up with Scotland the following Wednesday, to beginning 18 months coaching Scotland to the Rugby World Cup. I learnt so much from my mentor Ian McGeechan, and then I went and coached Auckland, won two championships and things were going well, thinking I knew it all.
“I then got given a role at the Blues – the only one teaching and coaching position that I never had to apply for. I never got the opportunity to say, ‘what’s the bigger picture?’ and ‘this is what I do’. I got a huge pay rise and took over my home team in Super Rugby.
“Once I was in, I realised, oh no, this is going to be a challenge, because you had the rugby team but then you had the whole organisation. Straight away I could see things weren’t right, but I got through it and I enjoyed my time there. In 2011 we got to the semi-finals for the first time since they won it and then the following year things changed. Budgets got cut, things were out of my control, but I still took so many learnings from it. When I came out of that, I thought, right, that’s the first time I’ve been sacked and I joined a lot of the top coaches in the world who had been sacked, but I would never ever take a coaching job unless I had the opportunity to ask, ‘what is the vision? what are you trying to achieve?’. That way I can align it to my own coaching philosophy and if it doesn’t fit, I don’t care how much you’re paying, I ain’t taking it.”
Lessons learnt to the benefit of Connacht and Bristol, and hopefully the Barbarians. Even lessons learnt before his professional rugby life are being applied with the Barbarians. “I’m a teacher by trade and I still regard myself as a teacher, it’s just doing a subject I have a lot more passion about. The beauty about primary school is you learn to deal with people, and coaching is really about managing people, getting the best out of them, then it’s about having good people around you.”
Similarities between primary school kids and Barbarians? “They like to have fun, and I think you should let them have fun, but then it’s (clap, clap), class time.”
Matchday. A morning coach trip to a Richmond hotel is followed by a car park training session. In an awkward L-shape space, with cars lining both sides and about three metres space between them, they run passing drills, lineouts and backs moves.
In another function room in a different hotel, the players get match ready. Wayne and Tim are on hand for last minute strapping and bandages. The room is subdued, with the hushed singing of Semi, Joe and Josh the only audio. Victor grabs 40 winks on the floor, some stretch the coach from their limbs, and others catch up on social media or chat. Josua, Finn and Chris talk tactics. “I’m a bit nervous now,” admits Finn. “I just want to get the first tackle out of the way, I know most of the maps or versions of them now.
“I think we’ve got through a lot, Pat has kept it simple but the way he plays lends itself to the Baa-Baas, he only kicks it when he has to.”
Pat gathers the players in a circle, there’s one key message. “Be world-class at things that don’t require talent,” he says repeating what’s on the board behind him. “It’s getting back up after that tackle quickly, running back rather than walking back. These things don’t require talent, they’re a decision. And this is what they don’t expect.
“A win – that’s the outcome we ultimately want,” he continues. “You’re all class players and that’s what you’re about. This five days has been outstanding, now you’ve got to have that brotherhood feeling and remember this is the only time in history this team will ever play together, it’s a one off, and it’ll never happen again.
“Juan – it’s his last game, let’s celebrate his career.”
Traffic is heaving en route to Twickenham. The sunny weather and the galactico Barbarian side has attracted a bumper crowd and it’s causing trouble for the coach driver who has to take an alternative route. The coach music that begin with AC/DC, is now on to The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, so you know the trip has taken longer than expected. Even when we draw just 100m from Twickenham, a steward refuses entry. “Muppets,” says the coach driver, before adding, “it’s the fucking Barbarians,” ensuring they knew of his precious cargo.
Leaving the Barbarians to their final matchday prep, we take our seats in the stand to watch Pat’s philosophy reveal itself on the field, along with the otherworldly talents of the deadliest of international backlines. It takes just two minutes for Semi to live up to his reputation, making a break, slipping through two England defenders, feeding Josua, who turns on the afterburners to leave Mike Brown flailing. Proving it was worth the effort trying to keep up, Chris is on hand for the simplest of scores and an Ash Splash to boot. 7-0.
Six minutes. Josua bumps a defender, beats another two, feeds Chris who collects his own cheeky chip inside the 22, to score again. 14-0.
Eleven minutes. Victor collects a kick from Finn to score. 21-0.
Twenty-four minutes. After an England fightback, Chris completes a hat-trick. 28-14
Thirty-eight minutes. England have drawn level, but Chris makes a break to feed roomie Finn to take them ahead again. 35-28.
Forty-three minutes. Semi. 42-28.
Fifty-nine minutes. England have closed the gap, but then Sateleki. 49-38.
Seventy-two minutes. Greig. 56-38.
Seventy-nine minutes. England have scored again, but then Victor. 63-45.
Sixty-three to forty-five.
Post-match, while Pat and Chris face the media, we catch up with the man who played a huge role on and off the field for the Barbarians, Tongan Bear, the man behind the celebration, the handshake and all manner of untold things from the week. His post-try routine – it needs to be viewed to be appreciated or understood – was a familiar sight at Twickenham. “We thought we’d be doing it [the celebration] every now and then, but we’ve done it a lot this afternoon,” he says. “We wanted to celebrate every little thing we’ve done that was good – and we did a lot of good things.
“If you could play rugby like this every week – 23 men coming together from different parts of the world and coming up with a performance like that in a week, imagine what we could do in a month – I’m sure we’d give some of the big teams a run. As the coach said, this is the only time we’ll play together as a team, it will never happen again, it’s a one-off, it’s special. It’s actually kind of sad, but I’ll spend the rest of my life remembering my only Test at Twickenham.”
Fellow frontrower Ben could only concur with Tongan Bear. “It was even better than I thought it would be,” he says. “You can’t explain it, it’s just special. Especially when you play in France where it’s very intense, there’s so much pressure and stress. This week, it’s been what rugby is about, having a few laughs, a few drinks, it’s what the core of rugby is. “You get some fat ones, skinny ones, foreigners, internationals – everyone’s got a part to play – you can kick the shit out of each other on the park and you can still have a laugh, and respect each other.
“We’ve drifted a little bit away from that,” he admits, going beyond the game. “Yes, the crowds are great, but even so you lose a little bit of soul. This though has put me at peace, I fell in love with the game again in just five days.
“It’s one of the best games I’ve been involved in and it’s the only trophy I’ve lifted, so it’s extremely special for me. It’s a privilege, a real honour, I’ve got to stop talking now, because if I carry on I’ll get really choked up. It’s just wonderful.”
And it’s all thanks to Batman.
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Han Lee De Boer