The history of the Barbarians

The closest thing to rugby’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters, with their focus on fun and entertainment, the Barbarians have been wowing crowds around the world for the past 130 years.

Other than playing for the British and Irish Lions – if you’re from that part of the world – to represent your country is the highest honour that can be bestowed on any professional rugby player.

Coming a close second is a call-up to the world-famous Barbarians, or the Baa-Baas as they are commonly known.

Receiving an invitation to pull on the famous black and white hooped jersey is a source of enormous pride to players, whether they’re an uncapped up-and-coming hopeful or a gnarled pro looking to add a prestigious footnote to their CVs.

Getting the opportunity to coach and put together a team full of superstars from around the world is equally treasured. “I started to look at who might be involved, it’s a little bit like fantasy rugby,” former Samoa international Pat Lam admitted ahead of his squad selection in 2018.

Bringing together players from different clubs, countries and cultures, the Barbarians’ fixture list is equally eclectic with games ranging from those against the best international teams on the planet to annual memorial matches and traditional social gatherings.

Just over 62,000 turned out to watch their last men’s international in November 2019 (a women’s team was introduced in 2017) – a 43-33 loss to Wales – and it is hoped that they will be back on the road again with more free-flowing rugby before too long. 

Who founded the Barbarians?

A man of vision and an extraordinary organiser, World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee William Percy Carpmael was the founding father of the Barbarian FC.

A stocky forward with both Blackheath and Cambridge University, Carpmael wanted the values of fellowship and camaraderie to be spread as widely throughout the fledgling rugby world as possible.

Enjoying the company of a group of friends while on a tour of the North of England in 1890, Carpmael came up with the idea of establishing an invitation-only touring rugby club, with a resolute commitment to playing attacking rugby.

Carpmael played in 20 of the first 23 Barbarians fixtures, from 1890-93, and continued to be the club’s driving force off the field until his death in 1936.

When and where was the club founded?

While Huddersfield was the birthplace of Rugby League, the Barbarians were also founded in West Yorkshire, 25km away in Bradford, on 8 April, 1890 – five years before rugby was split into two codes. The idea was said to have come to light over a late-night dinner at Leuchters Restaurant, a popular eating house run by a Prussian émigré.

Who do they play?

The Barbarians’ first matches were played exclusively in the North of England – against Hartlepool Rovers, Bradford and Bingley and Swinton – during the club’s first tour in December 1890. However, since then, matches have been played in virtually every corner of the British Isles and much further afield. At the last count, the nomadic Barbarians have played in 25 countries, helping to spread the rugby gospel in places as diverse as Tunisia and Georgia.

Easter tours invariably meant trips to Wales, while the Boxing Day match against Leicester Tigers was another fixture set in stone until the advent of professional rugby. The club’s longest continuous fixture – the Mobbs Memorial Match, which had been played against an East Midlands XV since 1921 to celebrate war hero Edgar Mobbs – also fell victim to the modern era in 2011.

The Barbarians’ first match against a major international touring team came in 1948 when they took on and beat Australia 9-6 at Cardiff Arms Park. Mickey Steele-Bodger, who became the club’s long-serving and arguably most influential president, scored one of the Baa-Baas’ three tries in front of a bumper crowd of 45,000. Games against the leading international teams in the world are now commonplace, particularly in the northern hemisphere.

What kit do they play in?

The Barbarians are unique in that players all take to the pitch wearing their own club socks. The club did break with tradition once, however, when they took on Australia at Wembley Stadium in 2008 to celebrate the centenary of the first London Olympics where Australia beat Great Britain – Cornwall in all but name – 32-3. For the game, the Baa-Baas wore the Duchy of Cornwall's black and gold socks.

Initially, the Barbarians’ jersey was white with a skull and crossbones symbol over the letters B.F.C. The current black and white hooped design was adopted a year after the club was formed in 1891.

Most famous try/match?

Arguably the greatest-ever Barbarians match in terms of sustained sweeping moves also boasted what is claimed to be the best try ever scored.

No rugby fan tires of seeing Phil Bennett gathering the ball deep inside his own 22, jinxing past several would-be defenders and then launching a counterattack, which goes through several pair of hands before Gareth Edwards dives over in the corner.

Cliff Morgan’s commentary of the move is almost as famous as the try itself. In his autobiography, The Voice of Rugby, the BBC’s Bill McLaren, wishes he’d been there to call it himself.

“That was the most famous match I didn’t commentate on, to my everlasting regret,” the Scotsman wrote.

“Cliff Morgan was the commentator that day. He had covered the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand, from which most of that All Blacks side had been drawn, and was so ideally equipped to cover the Cardiff game.

“Cliff did a super job, too. But I have to admit that when I saw the game on television, I fervently wished I had been involved. It was a real sizzler!”

How have the women's team's fared?

In November 2017, the Barbarians won the invitational club's first women's match as they defeated Munster 19-0 at Thomond Park in Limerick. They followed up that success with another victory the following March, 37-0 against the British Army.

The Barbarians women then maintained their 100 per cent record with a thrilling 34-33 win against the USA Women's Eagles in April 2019, but England ended that run two months later when they won 40-14 in the first leg of a historic doubleheader with the men's international at Twickenham. 

Most famous Barbarians?

Given the prestige in which the Barbarians are held, the club has never had any trouble attracting the biggest names in the sport. In fact, the club’s roster of former players reads like a who’s who of rugby and includes genuine superstars of the game like Jonah Lomu, David Campese and two-time Rugby World Cup-winning captain, Richie McCaw.

Ireland’s Tony O’Reilly made a record 30 appearances for the Barbarians, while his tally of 38 tries has also yet to be beaten.