Tim Barker: I have no regrets, only pride in my wonderful rugby career
When Aidan McSwiggan crossed with the final play at Stradbrook on Saturday afternoon, the celebrations began for Rainey Old Boys.
At 33-21 with no time left on the clock, their promotion play-off final against Blackrock College had been won, and the only thing that needed added on was the conversion from right in front of the posts.
Ever reliable fly-half Andy Magrath was perfect off the tee up to that point, with four successes from four, and would have easily knocked over the kick from right under the shadow of the sticks, but to his surprise it was another Rainey man who was ushered up to take the kick.
Veteran second row Tim Barker, playing in his final game, was told by his team-mates to go up and take the conversion - what would be his final act on the rugby pitch.
Before he even struck the conversion, his team-mates were already a bit bemused.
"None of them knew I was left-footed!" laughs Barker.
The conversion attempt itself was a source for even more good humoured ribbing. The strike was okay, the direction was not and the kick sliced wide to leave the final scoreline at 33-21.
In the end, the miss didn't matter in the slightest. For Rainey, it was a win and promotion to Division 2A just one year after suffering the heartbreak of losing the same play-off final to Navan, while for Barker it was the perfect way to sign off his career.
He wasn't even sure he would get to play against Blackrock due to a calf complaint, meaning his time on the rugby pitch could have already been over, but once he was able to take to the pitch there was no stopping him. For one last time he carried like a trojan and helped his side over the line.
"It was brilliant after last year. We had a very consistent season (in 2017-18) and at the end we were the better team against Navan but we just got into injury time and they sneaked it in the seventh minute," remembers Barker.
"The club and the alickadoos really wanted to see us get up to 2A so they were very determined. We had a tough start to the season but Saturday was great, we achieved the goal and played some great rugby as well.
"We started the season by losing three games in a row, then from October onwards we won six or seven in a row, then a tough stretch again, but two or three weeks before the play-offs the ground got a bit firmer and we have some really sharp backs so it suited us.
"The guys were so determined to finish the season on a high and I'm so glad it worked out for them."
And with that, Barker will ride off into the sunset in terms of rugby having spent the better part of 20 years playing the game as an underage star, a professional and then as an All-Ireland League stalwart with Rainey.
His career reads as one that would have any other green in the face with envy. Having played for Ireland at every level up to Under-21, he then went on as a professional to represent his home province of Ulster before stints with Scottish outfit Glasgow Warriors and then Castres Olympique in France.
When he left Ulster after his second stint in 2012, the intention had been to bid adieu to the game and settle down into his new career as a chartered accountant with PwC. But the game has a funny way of drawing you back in.
Indeed, it was someone very close to home who was the driving force behind Barker agreeing to sign on with the team at Hatrick Park after moving up to Magherafelt, even if the 37-year-old admits it made sense anyway.
"It seems like a long time ago that I finished professionally, that was seven years ago," recalls the Ulsterman.
"I moved up to Magherafelt and I wasn't sure if I was going to play rugby again, but the local rugby club was about five minutes from my house and I have a big family connection through my wife - her dad played for the club and her uncles have both been president. In fact, her uncle, Arnie McLean, was the president on Saturday for the second time.
"I thought it'd be good to go down to the local club and his enthusiasm played a massive role in me joining, he's very passionate about the club. Across the seven years I've really enjoyed it. I had a couple of years off when I was studying and doing exams, but I've played more consistently over the last three years and I've really enjoyed it."
He hasn't looked back since. Despite that brief spell he spent away from the team, he's been a constant in the squad on a Saturday afternoon and has played a major role in bringing them back up to the top level of Division 2 in the All-Ireland League.
In many ways he's one of the leading lights for those dropping down from the senior ranks who could make a major impact within Ulster clubs. Speak to anybody at Rainey and you'll hear how appreciative they are of Barker's contribution down the years.
It took most of them to convince the lock to come back for another season too. After last season's heartbreak there was no assurance that their leader in the pack would agree to putting himself through another endeavour as the tests of time made themselves known.
One by one the team's coaching staff made their cases for Barker to stick in there for one more campaign, and slowly he began to convince himself he would be back, but it was a familiar face who ensured that Barker would definitely return.
"At the end of last season I thought that was going to be me, but then over the summer I thought I could still offer something," admits Barker.
"I got on well with all the coaches down there - John Andrews, Damian Campbell, Peter Boyle - and I would have to single out Arnie McLean's role for being there for me and being able to talk to him. By the end I thought I'd give it one last go but this is 100 per cent my last go, and I really enjoyed it."
So with that definitely it, then, the future away from the rugby pitch beckons instead. Having dropped down to the All-Ireland League and maintained a career outside of sport already, Barker's transition won't be quite so tough as others, but it will still take some getting used to.
For instance, his Saturday afternoons will now be free to spend however he chooses rather than hopping on a bus and travelling to the furthest reaches of the island for away games, although there are perhaps two problems with that statement.
Firstly, although he will no longer be playing, he will still be keen to get down to Hatrick Park and cheer on his former team-mates. His love for the club has him now a permanent residence at the Magherafelt side.
Secondly, he has two daughters.
Living in Magherafelt with wife Lynn and father to Olivia, 8, and Emily, 5, the two girls now command a lot of his time alongside his blossoming career with PwC, to the extent that he's already thinking a few years into the future.
"They're getting a wee bit older and they're starting to get into clothes and shopping, so I'm starting to look at the teenage years being interesting!" he says with a smile.
As for rugby, it's maybe a case of never say never. Certainly with the wealth of experience he has there would definitely be plenty he could pass on should he decide to, but for now it'll be kept in reserve.
Rainey would surely be interested in his credentials should he ever go down the coaching route, as would plenty of other clubs across Ulster, but that's something to leave for down the line. Right now Barker is simply happy to take his place on the terraces and cheer on his friends.
"Rugby-wise now I'll probably take a step back now, I'm very busy with my career at PwC and with my daughters," he adds. "But the local rugby club is very close so I'll still enjoy going down and supporting them on a Saturday whenever I can. In terms of any commitments I'll be taking a step back."
With that, the curtain comes down. When he looks back on his career, Barker can reflect on making his mark with club Dungannon, two successful stints at Ravenhill (as it was then) with Ulster, a French sojourn with 'Gannon pal Jeremy Davidson in Castres and another spell over in Scotland with the Glasgow Warriors.
While it mightn't have lasted as long as he'd have hoped at the pro level, it's still a much better career than many will have at the top level of rugby and it is one that he looks back on with great pride, and insists that, in terms of regrets, he has "none at all".
"Rugby's a great game and I'm proud to have played professionally for so long. I finished at the right time, I don't think my body was ready to go back to full-time rugby, but very proud to have played for the three clubs I did - Glasgow, Ulster my home province and Castres in France," Barker insists.
"(Castres) was a great experience, I'm really glad I did that even if it was just for one season. When I first got there in 2007, the home matches were like life and death and the away games were really relaxed - home games you'd be banging heads off the wall! It was a great experience.
"Also I'm very pleased having started in amateur rugby to have finished there as well and to have given back something to my home club in Magherafelt. As I said, rugby is a great game and I've met some amazing characters and some friends for life at Rainey."
A fine way to look at a career that has treated him so well for so many years. Not many get to finish the game on their own terms but Barker can walk away with his head held high after sampling the professional ranks and making a considerable mark on the club scene too.
And even though he may have some regrets that conversion sailed wide on Saturday, by some stroke of good fortune that seemingly everyone happened to look away when he struck it, he may still end with career kicking statistics reading 1-for-1.
"For some reason all the scorers seemed to have 35-21 so I don't seem to have missed it, which I'm very happy with!" he grins.
Sure we'll let him away with it. I think he deserves it.
Belfast Telegraph Digital