Trying to keep a lid on the hype that surrounds Alfie Barbeary is like swimming against the tide. Wasps’ head coach, Lee Blackett, has done his best – railing at how even before he made his Premiership debut it was considered a matter of when, not if, he toured with the British & Irish Lions – but a hat-trick on his first league start last year, aged 19, blew the lid straight off.
He has since been included in England squads – he had been into camp even before that match against Leicester last September – and his raw potential, his eye-catching ball-carrying for someone so young has been evident whenever he has taken the field since. The trouble is, that has happened all too infrequently because Barbeary has been blighted by persistent injuries ever since bursting on to the stage.
Wasps’s last match – the European defeat by Munster this month – was only his seventh start since that hat-trick, and his third appearance of the season, amid syndesmosis near the ankle and hamstring injuries. They have been all the more frustrating because there have been brief comebacks along the way and as Blackett, whose side host London Irish on Boxing Day, recently lamented: “His last two games he’s played in, he’s got injured in the warmup.”
Still he has managed to show why he is so highly-rated – he scored within four minutes of coming on against Gloucester in November and he was impressive against Munster before being withdrawn at half-time due to a tight hamstring. His willingness to accept that decision, however, is a sign of his growing maturity. Barbeary has an endearing love for his sport – put simply, he is desperate to be on the field and never happier bulldozing defenders backwards. As far as his recent injury troubles are concerned he has, at times, been his own worst enemy but after a decision was taken, in consultation with Eddie Jones, to permanently relocate from hooker to the back row it feels like the 21-year-old is beginning a new chapter.
“I always say centre and a bit fluffy round the edges,” says Barbeary. “Right now I’m going to focus on back-row, that’s where I can do the best for Lee at Wasps. We’ll see what happens but I’m going back-row for the future. I hadn’t really played at hooker for about a year – since before Covid – so I had played more at back-row, was really enjoying it and getting in the team.
“And in terms of going back to hooker, there was uncertainty about getting in the team. I spoke to my mum and dad; Dad has always seen me as a back-row. I was enjoying it a lot more, there was more freedom, so I decided to go ahead and stay there. Hopefully it’s the right decision.
“[Eddie and I] had a discussion in terms of what I was thinking. But I think it was more my decision more than anything else in terms of where I saw myself and where I wanted to play, rather than his [decision]. It was more about what I was thinking to let him know more than anything else.”
If Barbeary comes across as brash in telling Jones how things will be – rather than vice versa – there is roguishness to him that England’s head coach will no doubt embrace. As difficult a decision as it may have been to switch positions, the logic is pretty simple – in the back row Barbeary can get his hands on the ball more and given he can be box office when he does it seems a no-brainer.
“I’ve got lots of enjoyment out of my ball-carrying and trying to beat defenders,” he adds. “At hooker it’s a lot harder to get on the ball. At set-piece you’re either throwing into the lineout or in the middle of a scrum, so being in the back row I can be part of that but very easily get on to the ball in terms of second phase. It is just easier for me to get into the game when I get those first few carries but at hooker it could take a while. Back-row flows a bit easier.”
It may mean that the England team is that little bit harder to get into but Barbeary demonstrates the maturity that Blackett lauds when assessing whether that came into his thinking. “You look at the back row in England and there are so many talents and it does make you wonder but I know I play my best rugby if I’m in the position I want to play in. I could go all right at hooker but I might not enjoy it as much and that might show in my game play so I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this for me’, and if things happen, things happen.”
The key now is keeping the persistent injuries at bay. Barbeary admits he is learning how to better manage his body now and under the tutelage of Joe Launchbury and Jack Willis – both of whom are still out with long-term injuries – he has stuck to his rehab regime. Beneath his lighthearted demeanour is a fierce competitor – someone who would flip the Monopoly board if they were losing, says Blackett – and the penny appears to have dropped that he has to manage his body as well as putting it on the line to such devastating effect.
“I’ve never been too keen sat watching in the crowd so you can imagine how much these last eight months have killed me,” Barbeary says. “[But] I’ve just got to keep being positive and if things don’t always go the right way, just remember that we’re lucky to be in this as a job and try and take everything from it. I think Lee and I are similar in terms of how competitive we are. I’m not one who likes losing, I’m not sure anyone is, but it does ruin your weekend when you don’t get a win. I’d say Lee is more the one who flips the board, I’m the one picking up the money after he’s flipped it!”