The People’s Champion: Jared Barry

Photo: Serge Gonzalez

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Shining a light on that select band of players worthy of consideration at the next level, is one of the most rewarding elements about covering the Intrust Super Shute Shield every year. Seeing one of the players you’ve written about graduate to Super Rugby, or to a professional life abroad, is immensely satisfying, a vicarious pleasure. Writing about one who had the chance to do just that, before deciding it wasn’t for them is, by contrast, something of a rarity.

Having followed the club career of Jared Barry since his fledgling 1st grade steps with Gordon back in 2007, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only person in and around club land to wonder just how this fella could go if he was placed in a professional environment. A standout performer in a dominant Eastwood side over the last five years, his size, aggression, physicality, ball-carries and offload skills, plus his work at lineout and scrum time, should make him the envy of any of the Australian Super Rugby sides. The question was, could he raise his fitness levels a few notches in order to make the same impact in the professional arena?

Because, by his own admission, Barry isn’t a model modern-day athlete with a physique honed to perfection. Standing at an imposing 6ft 4in, his 120kg body shape is a throwback to the weekend footy player in all of us, and he certainly isn’t shy when it comes to knocking back a few post-match schooners with the punters. But it is that old school approach to the game – on and off the field – that has seen him become one of the most popular players in the Shute Shield.

Jared Barry_Eastwood v Sydney Uni_2016_SG

Barry will face arch-rivals Sydney Uni this afternoon for a place in the Shute Shield final four – Photo: Serge Gonzalez

Affectionally known as the ‘People’s Champion’, Eastwood supporters naturally love him, but there is an awful lot of good will around the grounds of Sydney towards him from followers of all clubs. They respect what he does on the pitch, and they see the type of guy he is off it. He is a cult figure and poster boy for club rugby.

So when the Waratahs came calling towards the end of last year, he had some pretty big decisions to make.

“After the 2015 Shute Shield grand final I was going to have some time off, but I got wind that Cam Blades – who had just started as the forwards coach with the Waratahs – was keen to maybe get me on board,” explains Barry. “He asked me to come in and have a chat, do some training and see what I thought. If I’m honest, I could probably see that full-time training just wasn’t for me, but I decided to give it one more crack. It was nice of them to have noticed what I’d been doing for a number of years and I didn’t think I had anything to lose so I thought ‘Why not?’”

The quandary facing Barry was that he was now 28-years-old and, unlike the 19 to 23-year-old talent that is typically graduating through the ranks, he has spent the majority of his twenties forging a career outside of the game he loves. A career that will be paying the bills long after he’s stopped strapping his body up for battle on a rugby field.

“I passed the medical – probably just passed! – and went along and did some training a few hours a week and enjoyed it, just weights, no field work,” he says. “But I did say to the Tahs up front ‘You either want me or you don’t. You know how I play, you know what I can bring and what I can give. Yes, my training hasn’t been the best but if I commit to this, I can’t do it for free and I need to know a definite time frame because I’m not 18 anymore, I’m not living at home and I’ve got a great job.’

“The Tahs basically said ‘Keep training, see how you go and if we’re happy, we’ll offer you a deal, but it got to a point where I needed a decision and I just came to the realisation that it wasn’t for me. Yes, it was my dream when I was younger, and I didn’t grasp it then when I had the chance. But I had to be realistic, look at my age and my body and wonder how many years I had left in footy. I love my job, I love the industry I’m in and I’m not going to give that up for something that once was a dream.”

Jared Barry_Brumbies

A youthful Barry spent an unhappy time at the Brumbies back in 2007

That dream could have been realised 10 years ago, when he headed to Canberra as a raw 18-year-old to sign with the Brumbies. Ironically, he turned down the Tahs at the time, a decision he does now regret given the way things panned out in the nation’s capital.

“I probably didn’t put my best foot forward in Canberra,” he admits. “I was young, I probably wasn’t too focused and I spent more time thinking of my mates back in Sydney, on finishing school, going to ‘schoolies’ and going out, than I was on training. I was away from home and I didn’t really enjoy it that much.

“In hindsight, I should have stayed in Sydney when I left school. I had an option to go to the Waratahs as an academy player but I chose the full-time gig at the Brumbies instead and I just wasn’t ready for that. I should have stayed here and eased my way in to it. I play better when I’m happy and I wasn’t enjoying myself.”

Having grown up around Castle Hill and Glenhaven, the Eastwood club was a natural destination for a young Barry. He was a junior at TG Millner when Chris Hickey was head coach, but having signed for the Brumbies and opted to play his club footy in Sydney, he was told that a bit more time outside of grade may be beneficial.

“Chris felt I needed a bit more time in colts – which was probably the right call,” he reflects. “But Lachie Fear, who was in charge at Gordon, spoke to me and said I was ready to go straight to grade, so I went for it. I ended up playing the first round match off the bench, a 20-all draw at Eastwood, and then went straight into 1st grade the next week at 18-years-old. The funny thing was, at the end of the year Lachie came up to me and said ‘I didn’t actually think you’d play first grade!’”

Jared Barry_Gordon v Warringah_Pro

Barry spent four years at Gordon before returning to junior club Eastwood in 2010 – Photo: Pro Carlos Photography

A brief dalliance with rugby league in 2008 – he played Toyota Cup for Wests Tigers – was followed by a return to Chatswood Oval, and a Gordon side that was causing quite a stir. A team with no representative players was guided to successive 3rd placed finishes and two Shute Shield semi-finals by coach Fear, the Highlanders only undone by a Randwick side laden with Super Rugby talent on both occasions.

“Lachie was awesome at putting a team together and getting the right people. We had Dave Harvey, Ofa Fainga’anuku, Sisa Waqa, Justin Turner, Chris Alcock and Dane Haylett-Petty in that side.”

But Fear left the club in 2009, things went downhill for the next couple of seasons, and a trio of Highlanders – Barry, Alcock and prop Marty Plokstys – made the trip West up the Epping Road, to the Woodies. The barraging loose-forward was coming home, however, he soon found himself down the pecking order at a club with an increasing strength-in-depth, and heading firmly in the right direction under new head coach, John Manenti.

“I probably stayed one too many years at Gordon, there were a few things happening around the club at the time and after agreeing to go around for one more year there, we all moved together,” says Barry. “But in my first year back at Eastwood, there were a few guys ahead of me like Ben Hand and Josh Dunning, who were established at the club, while I was trying to work my way in.

Jared Barry_Rovigo

A stint in Italy with Rovigo in 2011 only fuelled his desire to win a Shute Shield Premiership with the Woodies

“I was getting some game time off the bench but halfway through the season, I was approached by Rovigo, in Italy. I had an option to go abroad and see the world a bit so I said yes, but two weeks after I’d signed, I got a spot in 1st grade, in the side that went on to win the Premiership. I was a bit dirty on myself for packing up and heading off because I’d played the last five or six games leading up to the final. I actually saw the game from over there, and it was pretty shattering. I turned it off halfway through because I couldn’t watch it!”

Motivated by the desire to get a slice of the action, he returned to the Woodies in 2012 to cement a 1st team spot, but the champions were crippled by injuries and went out to a stoic Norths side in the first week of the finals. A year later, they suffered at the hands of a rampant Sydney University in the grand final, but in 2014, he finally got his hands on the Shute Shield with a win over Southern Districts.

Last season’s epic title decider with Manly will live long in the memory, Jai Ayoub’s field goal in the dying moments securing a second successive Premiership, and a third in five years. Barry was arguably the best player on the pitch. For a team that aren’t blessed with unlimited resources, it’s an outstanding achievement. It’s a case of good people, hard work and dedication, and a culture that unifies everybody.

“It’s not a wealthy club, we’ve got the most ghetto gym in Australia still – we’re throwing around pieces of concrete instead of dumb-bells – but everyone knows that’s what we’ve got to do,” says Barry. “When new players arrive, there’s an expectation on them to give for that jersey and give for the people that wore it before you. You don’t expect to be picked, you don’t expect to be in a certain grade – no matter who you are – you’ve got to earn your position. There’s no rockstars and no dickheads and we’re humble. Some people might not agree with that but I think we try to be gracious when we win and gracious when we lose.”

“I love playing at Eastwood, I love the boys down here and having a laugh,” he continues. “The majority of the team are juniors and grew up around here and we want to play for that jersey. Every time you put it on, it’s so important to us, even down to the lower graders, everyone wants to play and give everything for the club. We have the best crowd and best supporters in the comp and it’s hard not to get up and play for them. The Woodies are a part of my life now, the fans, the players, it’s a club that you really want to play for. You turn up to every training session excited to see your mates. They’re not just team mates, they’re your actual mates.”

Jared Barry_Eastwood v Manly 2015 GF_JB

Barry was a standout for the Woodies in last year’s epic grand final win over Manly – Photo: J.B Photography

That dedication, passion and genuine affection for his club spreads beyond the dressing sheds and into the clubhouse, where Barry happily sits amongst the TG Millner faithful to share a yarn, a laugh and a few drops of the amber nectar. He is the ultimate conduit between the team and its supporters. Hence his nickname.

“When we won the Grand Final in 2014, we went back to the club and Johnny [Manenti] did a presentation where he called me the ‘People’s Champ’ and it just sort of stuck,” he laughs. “I’m not upset about it. I like going to the club, I like talking to people and I’m probably a bit more of the old school type of player than the modern type who worries about what they’re drinking and what they’re eating. I like to go and have a chat and do my own thing. Johnny must have seen that because I’m always there, I love the place and love all the supporters and I’m happy with it, it’s a great tag to have.”

But while those that enjoy his performances on the field, and his company off it, on a weekly basis, will no doubt understand his reasons for not pursuing the Super Rugby opportunity, is he concerned that not everyone will share the same opinion?

“A lot of people will probably look at me and think it was a stupid decision but I’m the only person who wakes up in these shoes and knows whether I’m happy or not. It was one of those decisions where you come to a crossroads in life and I chose to go one way and run with it. I love winning and I love playing for Eastwood, but I just wasn’t sure about that next level and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. I wasn’t going to sign a contract if I wasn’t one hundred percent all in, and I’m still happy with my decision. It is disappointing but at least I got to go out on my terms. It was my choice, rather than battling away for a year and not being happy or in the right head space.

“I’m under no illusions that if I had kept training and been offered a deal, that it would have been easy for me to slip straight into the squad – no way. But if I’d managed to make it through, even for a couple of years as a Waratah and that was it, I’d be two years behind in my chosen field. I work in hospitality, running all the marketing and creative for a group of hotels, organising pre-openings and projects etc. It’s a very social environment and it’s great with my connections through footy as well. I just talk to people all day! But it’s an industry that if I left for two years, it’s really hard to get back into because it’s ever-changing.”

Jared Barry quotes_2015

Having committed to his job and his club, Barry looked forward to the chance to help Eastwood challenge for a hat-trick of titles in 2016. But a trio of injuries sustained by round two curtailed his season before it had started in earnest, and caused him to genuinely consider his playing future. However, after a frustrating few months sitting on the sideline and watching the Woodies lose an uncharacteristically high number of games, the itch needed scratching once again, and he returned at a time when his team needed him most.

A loss to Parramatta in round 15 left the two-time Premiers on the brink of missing out on the finals. But the returns of Barry, Tom Hill, Cam Mitchell and Jed Gillespie have fuelled a late-season revival. Successive wins over Penrith, Randwick and Gordon – and a bit of help from Angus Sinclair’s last gasp converted try for Northern Suburbs against Manly last weekend – have put the Woodies back in contention. The small matter of a visit to Sydney University this afternoon, now stands between them and another semi-final.

“Uni at Uni is probably as daunting as it sounds but you have to beat everyone if you want to make it to the grand final,” says Barry. “We are really confident with how the team is looking at the moment, and also how well we finished the season. We know we can beat anyone on our day and we also know that teams don’t want to play us. We have shown in the last two or three years that we step up for the big games and this Saturday is as big as any for Eastwood.”

A defeat would bring with it the next big decision for the affable giant. Unlikely to stick his hand up for NRC duties with the Western Sydney Rams, whether the mind and body are ready and willing to go around again in 2017 for his beloved club is yet to be decided. But whether it’s this year, the next or any time in the future, club rugby will undoubtedly be worse off without his hulking, demonstrative presence on the field, and his warmth and geniality off it.

The beautiful thing about rugby is that it is the ultimate team sport. Tall, short, skinny, fat, quick, slow, athletic, powerful, skilful, elusive, aggressive – it is a sport for all body shapes and sizes, and a varying degree of skill-sets, mentalities and personalities. But the one unifying bond is mateship.

Twenty-three blokes go into battle alongside each other every Saturday afternoon, put their bodies on the line for the guy standing next to them, often end-up battered, bruised and bloodied for their efforts, and the first thing they do when the final whistle blows is shake the opposition’s hand, cheer them from the field, and put all on-field contretemps behind them to share a beer or ten with friend and foe.

Many of those playing have the ultimate prize in their sights, to push themselves to the absolute limit in search of a professional career, medals, trophies and the chance to represent their country. While for many others, the reward is the game itself, and the brotherhood of men or women that you become a part of, the club that becomes a second home, and the mates you will have for life.

And hey, that’s alright too. Especially if you’re the ‘People’s Champion’.

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First published by Rugby News on July 23rd, 2016

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