They call him ‘Eric’ at Wasps, ‘like in Cantona,’ said Alfie Barbeary. Why though? “They say I get special treatment,” he added.
In fact, they call him many things. He had already admitted that one of his many nicknames is Piglet, and sure enough, when No. 8 was photographed in sandals of him, a cry went up from the nearby door of the club’s training center: ‘Put those trotters away.’ Perhaps there is special treatment in the form of a concerted campaign between Wasps’ squad and staff to keep particular talent grounded.
If so, it seems to be working. There’s confidence in Barbeary, but none of the arrogance typical of Cantona. There has been fanfare for him in English rugby circles in recent years but having lost the momentum of his early career he now recognizes the need for the right attitude to go with so much innate skill.
Something had to give way, so Barbeary decided not to attend a season-ending social event in Budapest and a summer trip to the beautiful party island of Hvar in Croatia. The penny has already dropped – ahead of his approaching 22nd birthday – about the need to grab and ring every drop of his vast potential when a versatile striker, moving from the front row to the back, decided to make the No8 his home to make , but remains a wannabe center at heart.
The increased engagement reflects the fact that Barbeary is growing up. “It’s the first pre-season I’ve come through in one piece and one of the first times I’ve played the first game of the season,” he said after starting the opener against Gloucester in Kingsholm last Sunday. “It was a nice feeling – it’s just a pity that we didn’t get the result.
“I probably came back (for the preseason) in better shape than I usually come back. I’ve always been a bit immature about what I did in the off-season. As an 18 or 19 year old your buddies are in gap years and stuff like that so I would lose myself with them.
“This year I’ve tried to see myself a little more as a rugby player and to remind myself that I needed to come back and get stuck in pre-season. I wanted to hit the ground running and when I’m a little lighter and less fat on me I’m less likely to get injured.” When asked what was sacrificed in order to be in top condition for the Wasps service as a priority, Barbeary added: ” There were a few holidays I missed and a few parties. But looking back now, I don’t regret it as much as I did then.
“It’s just about being sensible and not taking the shit. I’m just glad the season has started and I’m in one piece. Last year I tore a hamstring and it just wasn’t going my way. I always tried to hurry to get back. Barbeary admits that after making waves as a promising, persistent sensation when he first joined the Wasps senior team, he often struggled to make the same flashy impression. After his secret was out, he was targeted by opposing coaches and players and it has taken some time to come to terms with that attention.
“I was starting to feel a little bit human-lined,” he admitted. “I struggled to adapt to it. That’s probably why I’ve calmed down a bit in games. I haven’t seen the ball that often. I became a professional dummy line!
“Now I’ve matured a bit, you realize you just have to find a way around it. If other teams bit me, they will give me opportunities, so I have to follow the ball, look for throws and use that as my way into the game. Instead of trying to carry up the middle, break a tackle and get an off load, I can chase the ball and maybe be the guy at the end. The build-up of pressure occurred on more than one front. Barbeary has had to deal with special treatment from rivals who wanted to quell his exuberance, but also the burden of becoming the focus of Wasps fans’ hopes. His appearance as a home matchwinner captured the imagination, but meant it, but he had so much to do.
“There’s anticipation but you don’t really feel it until you have a few quiet games,” he said. “Then you put more pressure on yourself and tend to overdo it. I had a period last season where I was probably chasing games as I was in and out of camp (England) and coming back to Wasps. I expected myself to play better, but then I had some of the worst games I’ve ever played.
“I can’t say I don’t like that expectation. I’ve always liked it. But as much as you get hype, you also get people doubting you, and it’s always a nice feeling when you can prove them wrong. Last season, English rugby was gripped by the emergence of another brilliant new talent to pave the way – Irish aviator from London Henry Arundell. His rapid rise saw him straight into the England team after months of making a splash at national level.
Although their positions differ widely, there have been echoes of Barbeary’s breakthrough, but he concedes that Arundell has navigated the rise to prominence better than he could. “He’s a top player and a good guy,” Barbeary said.
“Realistically, when I broke through, I didn’t have the… robustness to support it. He has supported it and shown his talent on the international stage. I broke through and then went quiet for a while. I still hadn’t really decided what position I wanted to play, so it was a bit awkward – a bit in limbo.”
At least this state of uncertainty is banished. After moving from the hooker to the back row, Barbeary set his heart on operating at the base of the scrum for Wasps and hopefully in time for England too. Despite Billy Vunipola being called out of Test exile and Zach Mercer’s decision to join Gloucester next summer to push for World Cup selection – creating a wider range of candidates for Red Rose selection – Barbeary is “determined ‘ to stay in 8th place.
Wasps will be hoping he’s also adamant on staying with them as contract talks continue. While the issue isn’t up for public debate, Barbeary stressed he’s happy where he is and joked that a move across the English Channel – a la Mercer – might not work wonders for his fitness regime. “I would come back too big if I went to France,” he joked.
On the pitch, Barbeary’s immediate priority is to help his club equalize a playful 21-0 lead at Gloucester by beating Bristol in Coventry this afternoon. Off the field he is striving to improve his golf, having agreed with Will Haydon-Wood, his new Leamington flatmate and Wasp recruit, that they would commit to learning the game, arduous as the process might be like.
“I love it, but I lose way too many balls,” Barbeary said. “It costs a fortune! It’s annoying because Will is naturally good at everything. His swing looks great, then there I am, stiff as a board, barely able to move his back. He shows me.’ One way or another, Wasps keep their special “Eric” humble – despite this Cantona comparison.