IT IS a strange story, this salutary tale of two stand-offs. One started life as a golden boy, the pin-up for a nation, breaking records like no man before him, amassing more points, titles and silverware than all but the most optimistic Scots would ever hope to see in a lifetime.
Yet this is the same man who, at what should be the peak of his career, is playing in a lumpen, one-paced England side and has come to a point in his career where he can do no right.
If Jonny Wilkinson's extraordinary career trajectory has taken him from golden hero to much-maligned zero, then facing him yesterday was a man whose fortunes have been exactly the opposite of England's chosen one. Since he made his debut 50 caps ago against Wales in 2004, Dan Parks has been virtually nobody's chosen son. Characterised for so long as a non-tackling blow-in from Down Under chosen by Mattie Williams, Parks has shouldered the blame for a nation's disappointment.
The antipathy towards the little Aussie has been palpable throughout his Test career and reached its zenith just over a year ago when Parks came on as a blood replacement for Phil Godman against South Africa in a scintillating match that was there for Scotland's taking. The booing as he entered the arena was intermittent but unmistakable. The gusto with which he was booed from the Murrayfield pitch five minutes later after missing two penalties before laughing and joking with the bench as if he was playing touch in the park rather than passing up a chance to topple the world champions verged on the vitriolic.
A year is a long time in Scottish rugby though, and after some severely lacklustre performances from Phil Godman in the autumn, possibly the most unexpected love affair in Scottish rugby got under way with a virtuoso man-of-the-match performance of supreme verve and confidence in Cardiff, and continued with a kicking masterclass against the Italians in Rome. If Scotland were wiped away by the Azzurri at the breakdown, then it was hardly Parks' fault.
So when Parks took the field yesterday after collecting his 50th jersey from Thom Evans before the game, walking out to take the applause on his own, a remarkable thing happened: the crowd spontaneously applauded. "The crowd were absolutely fantastic today," he said after the match. "Considering the last time I was here, it was a nice change, and it does make a difference. I didn't know whether I should walk out on my own, I was worried about what sort of reception I might get, but it was memorable – and in a good way."
Parks looked sheepish as he took the applause, but as his club captain and Scotland team-mate Al Kellock said afterwards: "Dan had a huge game and I'm glad the crowd showed their appreciation. Dan was poorly treated in the past but I play with Dan week in, week out and I know that he always gives his all. It's a massive honour to join that elite group of players who have 50 caps but then he's been outstanding since he got the nod over the past three games. All he's ever wanted is to be judged on the basis of his performances, and they have been consistently outstanding. Those are Scotland fans out there, he's the Scotland stand-off and it's good to see them giving the backing he deserves."
In fact, they almost willed him to excel, cooing with ecstasy and clapping with polite respect every time one of his corkscrewed kicks found touch. When his penalty from just inside the England half sailed between the posts after five minutes, they were in raptures. It was almost as if they wanted to atone for their prolonged boorishness, for expecting Parks to do things beyond his capacity. Like tackle, mainly.
Not that any Parks performance was complete without the odd outlandishly bad option or the sort of unforced error guaranteed to send Andy Robinson berserk. Parks certainly chucked in some quality bloopers, passing into touch in England's 22 in the first half when an opening try beckoned. Then he tried two ridiculously long drop-goals that were well beyond his range. Yet instead of getting on the wee man's back, the crowd treated each mini-disaster as a minor aberration. Parks has been criticised for a supposedly brittle temperament, yet buoyed by the crowd, when the chance came for a closer drop-goal he didn't hesitate. It was perhaps the ugliest drop-goal ever witnessed at Murrayfield, yet it somehow weaved and wobbled over.
For his old foe down the other end, it was an entirely different story. Apart from his goalkicking – in the process overtaking Ronan O'Gara's Six Nations record with 526 points – virtually nothing Wilkinson did went right. His afternoon was epitomised by the moment he ignored a three-on-one overlap in Scotland's 22 and lobbed a miss-pass over hooker Dylan Hartley's head and into touch. It was like the golden one had the anti-Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dirt. Bereft of ideas and confidence, a miserable evening was made worse when he was clattered by Graeme Morrison, and then finally, mercifully, ended when he hobbled off five minutes into the second half after taking one blow too many at the bottom of a ruck in England's 22. Wilko has never looked so forlorn.
Parks, on the other hand, has rarely looked so perky. Shortly after England moved to 12-9, Scotland got a penalty on the right touchline and their No.10 slotted the ball between the posts. That was just before he hit the upright with another penalty – this time, though, the crowd merely shouted encouragement.
They did the same with just over ten minutes to go when Parks again hit the upright, this time watching in anguish as Al Kellock took the ball up and was stopped short, a fate that also befell Scott Lawson when he took the big second row's offload. Not even one of the most ridiculous options ever taken by Parks, who chipped over a wall of England defenders standing on their line when he had men outside and the line at their mercy, could ruin his day, with England infringing and Parks slotting the penalty to make it 15-15. All Scotland's points had been scored by the man who was for so long the nation's whipping boy.