Fresh from a three week tour with the world-famous Barbarians team, Rebels Billy Meakes and Angus Cottrell gave the inside word on what really went down on the Babaas bus.
Weaved between international matches against Fiji, Brazil and Wales, the Rebel representatives rubbed shoulders with some of world rugby’s biggest name players and engaged in ‘team building’ exercises that offered a throwback to a less professional era.
“I think we landed in London on a Monday and that night we had a team dinner, which led to a few lemonades*. I think that was the best way to get to know everyone pretty quickly,” confessed Cottrell.
“We had some pretty big characters in the team,” chimed in Meakes.
“The South Africans are pretty tough to beat. We had a bloke called Hencus (Van Wyk) who is a current player at the Sunwolves who ended up being our spiritual leader appointed by Eddie Jones.
“I’ve never seen someone consistently drink that much lemonade in my life,” said Meakes.
“Schalke (Britz) was only there for the final week and he gave it a good nudge,” added Cottrell.
The Barbarians perhaps offer the last refuge of a bygone era for the modern professional player. Founded in 1884, no international player can retire satisfied with their rugby CV without having donned the black and white hooped jersey of ‘the Babaas’.
The invitational team, assembled every year with star studded players from across the globe, is renowned for its enterprising play and attacking philosophy.
A Rebels quartet of Luke Jones, Matt Philip, Billy Meakes and Angus Cottrell were on hand to represent Melbourne, donning their Rebels club socks in a nod to tradition.
“We had a pretty amazing group; a pretty amazing makeup of rugby playing nations. Nine or ten different nationalities represented; guys you’ve watched on tv or at the World Cup or even just played a season against,” said Meakes.
“Actually getting to know them, spending three weeks with them, having a few lemonades, playing some rugby and just peeling back what professional rugby is now and taking it back to why you started playing the game was amazing.
“It was a three-week tour and each week you had a different coach so every week had a unique feel to it.
“We had Eddie Jones the first week at Twickenham against Fiji so it was something of a serious Test match but Eddie had just finished the World Cup and was obviously a little disappointed with how that went.
“He came in pretty relaxed, pretty casual and pretty keen to have a relaxed week and just enjoy it.”
Whilst John Mitchell took the reins for the Brazil match, Warren Gatland created headlines when he partnered with Robbie Deans to lead the Babaas against his old team Wales, in the final match of the Tour.
The logistics of shuffling through three Head coaches in three weeks comes with challenges, but the squad found ways to adapt.
“Eddie and John (Mitchell) came in with a plan on the first week with a style of how we’d play and as a management team approached it unbelievably well,” said Cottrell.
“When Warren (Gatland) and Robbie (Deans) turned up, obviously, they weren’t going to change it too much. A lot of the rugby side of things were the same for the final week; just a few new plays.”
As well as exposing themselves to different coaching styles, the pair acknowledged the bonds formed with their new teammates as the greatest aspect of the tour.
“You play against guys and you have a perception of them without meeting them. But then you meet them and realise there exactly like you.
“They’re normal guys who play rugby but they’re obviously perceived as being tough guys but they’re just good blokes who play rugby a certain way.
“Andre Esterhuizen, the 12 from the Sharks; I always perceived him as being one of the biggest and toughest 12s I’ve played against but he’s one of the friendliest guys I’ve met so now when I play him I don’t think I’ll be as scared of him, which is a good way to be.
“Gussy and I speak about (David) Havili a couple of times who plays for the Crusaders.
“He’s the most normal bloke, down to earth. There’s not much of him, he doesn’t train particularly hard in the gym but he was hands down one of the best players when he touched the ball.
“It was pretty cool to see someone who you play against and think ‘God your good, you must do so much different to what we do,’ but realise he’s just a very gifted player,” said Meakes.
“I know he left us on the second week in Brazil and before he left we said we’d catch up and go out to dinner with him in Melbourne,” chipped in Cottrell.
“That’s the special thing about Babaas, you do make these lifelong friends,” added Meakes.
“We now have a WhatsApp group, and Luke Jones was saying he belongs to five other Babaas WhatsApp groups (from previous tours) and they still all talk. No doubt we can catch up with any of these guys if we’re in their respective cities.”
Perhaps the one disappointment of the tour for Cottrell was the fact his two try effort against Brazil wasn’t captured on tape, meaning family and friends are left to piece together the feat from his somewhat scratchy recollection.
To honour the achievement however, he has already earmarked where his Barbarians jersey will be heading.
“I swapped my last one with the Welsh number 8, so I’ll probably hand over the Brazil one to Dad,” said Cottrell.
Christmas shopping sorted!
*may or may not have been lemonade