Ten years after he swapped Sydney for Scotland, Dan Parks counts his blessings
Ten years ago, while England were winning something or other that bestowed great Buckingham Palace riches on everyone involved, Scotland were trying to forge a new path in international rugby.
They had turned to an Australian, Matt Williams, for new ideas and were striving to blend a strong desire to harvest native talent more effectively, with the need for foreign players with skills that could make the Scottish professional sides more competitive. While the spotlight followed former All Blacks captain Todd Blackadder and Brendan ‘Chainsaw’ Laney at Edinburgh, under the radar in the autumn of 2003 slipped a slight Australian who was to play a much bigger role in Scotland’s fortunes in the new millennium than any of them.
And he is still carving an influence in the game. No longer on the international stage, Dan Parks is enjoying life on Ireland’s west coast and awaiting the visit of his old club to Galway later today. It is tempting to surmise that the Sydneysider released by Leeds after a brief trial as a youngster, then picked up by Glasgow at a time when they were also-rans in Celtic rugby never mind the European arena, and who turned to Scottish ancestry for international inspiration, is drawn to underdogs. But he is more sanguine.
“It just happens,” he says. “I grew up in Australia loving rugby and other sports, but when I first came to Scotland, I knew little about Glasgow or Scottish rugby.
“I don’t think that says anything about me necessarily. The offer came in and I just thought ‘wow, I’ve got a chance to play in Scotland’. For me, it was an opportunity to be a professional rugby player, and the fact that it was in a country where I had family links made it more interesting for me. When I look back now at what has happened in those ten years it’s unbelievable, really – you couldn’t have predicted it, that’s for sure.”
Parks helped to make Glasgow a more competitive and respected team across Britain and Ireland and enjoyed an international career that stretched to 67 Test matches, covering the obligatory Scottish rocky patches and fleeting triumphs. He finished the 2007 World Cup as Scotland’s most heralded player and came back in 2010, having been written off and widely criticised, to win three man-of-the-match gongs in succession and clinch Scotland’s first Six Nations victory on Irish soil with his unerring right boot.
The memory of Parks being booed off the Murrayfield turf after an uninspiring performance from both himself and the team contrasts sharply with the glory of that winning penalty from close to the left touchline, as the wind howled up inside Croke Park, which was to prove Parks’ moment of salvation. But, as much as he agrees that that memory is one he will take to his grave, he steps back from hyperbole. Strange for an Aussie, maybe, but he insists that as much as he was carried along on the rollercoaster that comes with representing Scotland on the world stage, and can still feel the pain of humiliation and defeat and can easily relive the Calcutta Cup wins and historic victories over South Africa, France and Argentina, his reflections rarely place him at the heart of it. In short, he does not recognise the Parks ‘star’. He did what he could, he says, no more no less, and is very thankful for the opportunity.
“When I arrived in Scotland it was just about going out there and playing, getting results for Glasgow, and learning about a professional environment. It wasn’t even about playing for Scotland.
“I think I was fortunate that I turned up at a time when the team was losing a lot of experienced players – top backs like Gregor [Townsend], Bryan Redpath, Kenny Logan, James McLaren and Glenn Metcalfe were all retiring after the 2003 World Cup, or had just retired, and there were holes to fill. In that December, there was a national camp with a lot of new faces, and myself, Chris Cusiter, Tom Philip and Ally Hogg were all put straight into the first Test match of 2004, down in Wales, and guys like Hugo [Southwell] and Sean Lamont and the next year Rory followed.
“It was a real rebuilding phase, but I was just delighted to have been given the chance and I look back now on a great career, and one that is still going on.”
The similarities between that period in Scottish rugby and the present are fascinating. An Australian, Scott Johnson, is in charge of the national side again and he is at the helm of an even greater overhaul of Scotland’s back division.
In the past year, Tom Heathcote, Henry Pyrgos, Sean Maitland, Greig Tonks, Duncan Taylor, Peter Murchie, Alex Dunbar and Tommy Seymour have joined Scotland’s international firmament with Glasgow centre Mark Bennett in line to follow next month. Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser are hardly veterans, having only taken their bows on the Test stage in 2012. Ruaridh Jackson is viewed as the No 1 stand-off now, having been brought through under Parks, but with Heathcote, Duncan Weir and Harry Leonard ensuring a better-than-average level of competition for the pivotal role.
Parks admits that he is encouraged by that, knowing from experience the difficulties Scotland face in competing when the coach has relatively few players from which to choose. Intriguingly, each of his successive national coaches was forced to change his mind on Parks’ suitability as Scotland’s controller.
Williams told all and sundry he was launching a new era with Chris Paterson at ten and, within two months, had turned to Parks. Frank Hadden started with him in a stunning 2006 championship, looked elsewhere, came back and then dropped him latterly, while Andy Robinson infamously left him out of his 44-man training squad in 2009 only to pull him in six months later, and reap the benefits of his best Six Nations in charge.
Parks had his wobbles and his howlers in a Scotland jersey, and deserved to be dropped on occasion, though no less a luminary as John Rutherford once felt compelled to offer his public support, insisting that Parks had played no worse than he himself had in many Test matches, only he had better players around him who could take some of the heat.
At 5ft 11in and working hard to fill his body out to 14 stone, Parks was a lightweight in the back division and frequently hidden in defence, while his talent for controlling games and territory with an exquisitely skilled boot worked against a desire on the part of some coaches to launch wider attacks unexpectedly. But they kept coming back to him because he was reliable and teams could plan around him.
Parks also had off-field issues to deal with, manifested most publicly in a drink-drive ban, and he admits he has much to thank team-mates and coaches for helping him through those difficult times. “That was why 2009-10 was just so big for me,” he explains. “I was out of the team in 2009 and then Andy came in and I wasn’t part of it at all. I had been given a new contract by Glasgow, so I decided I had to knuckle down and get on with it.
“I wasn’t involved with Scotland and I had the best pre-season for years, and it was huge for me to prove to people what I could do as that season moved on, and it got me back on course. Sean Lineen stuck by me at that time and there were a lot of players, and trainer Gary Dempsey, who is now working down at the English Institute of Sport, who supported me, Gary working hard to get me fit. He is still a great mate of mine.
“I could talk about all the players in the club who got me through some dark days, as well as my parents, and it was one of those things where you learn what’s important, and who’s important, in life.
“I was very fortunate to have a good support base, and I had close friends where I was living, and people felt I had the talent still to play. I just had to get my mental state right again. It does all come back to yourself, ultimately. At the end of the day, you’re a rugby player first and foremost, and you’re with the team because you’re a rugby player, not because you’re a good guy or whatever, so you have to go back to that.
“Andy [Robinson] spoke to me around the end of 2009, and said he was keen for me to get back involved, and it was a big decision really then whether to go with it. After all I’d been through it would have been quite easy to just say ‘no thanks’ and concentrate on Glasgow. But, at the end of the day, playing for Scotland had been a huge honour for me and my family, and there was still a big drive there in me to be successful and to help the team win games.”
He duly did so, taking over from Phil Godman in the second game and almost steering Scotland to victory in a bizarre match in Cardiff, coming off second-best again in Italy despite scoring all of Scotland’s 12 points, striking all the points in a 15-15 draw with England and then striking 18 points in that 23-20 win in Ireland.
He would start another eight Tests and come off the bench in seven, as Robinson searched for a way to make Scotland more dangerous in attack without any consistent success. Parks sat in New Zealand after a first pool exit from the World Cup pondering retirement, but was persuaded to think about it long and hard. Robinson returned to him again and, with injuries affecting his squad, persuaded Parks to play in the 2012 Six Nations, but after an insipid 13-6 Calcutta Cup defeat at Murrayfield, where Parks bore the brunt of criticism for Scotland’s limited attacking threat, he decided it was time to go.
“I had already made a big decision to leave Cardiff for Connacht at the end of that season and, to be honest, part of the deal was that I wouldn’t be playing international rugby any more. I came back for Scotland really because beating England was such a big draw, and to be asked to try to help the team achieve that again was ultimately too big a deal to turn down, but I knew I was retiring from international rugby that year.
“It was a big call at the time but I was leaving Cardiff and wanted to go somewhere I would be appreciated, in the sense of still being of value to a team and able to help them, rather than just sign for the sake of signing.
“Connacht was not always the most attractive place to go to, but they always impressed me because they played with real heart and had a passion about their rugby which I wanted to be part of.
“Last year was Connacht’s highest-ever [Celtic League] finish, and it felt good to be part of that, and while this year has been a slow start, and some tough games, we are playing not too bad and are getting to grips with the different style that Pat [Lam] wants from the team.”
Parks is also coaching the Under-18s and is looking seriously at a coaching career. He has enjoyed the UK and harbours no strong desire to return to Australia, but is quick in our ramblings to bring the story back to the present, reminding me that he has not finished playing yet. “I’ll keep playing as long as my body lets me and I’m feeling great at 35 and hope I can play for another season or more, to be honest,” he says.
But do Scottish fortunes still capture his interest?
“You never distance yourself entirely. It is completely different now to when you’re involved at that level, and you’re always taking media calls, doing community stuff, training camps, moving from club to country etc. I still pay a huge attention to what is going on, and keep up to date with boys in Scotland, great friends, and when you see Scotland running out on the pitch you always wish that it’s something you were still part of, but I have no real regrets.
“The 2007 World Cup was a massive highlight of my career and huge wins like that against Ireland in 2010, in Argentina, over England and South Africa were awesome, and especially the ones in 2010 after those dark days the year before. But the worst day was not when I had a bad game or got criticism; it was that horrible day in 2010 when we came off after losing to Wales to find out that Thom Evans was lying in a hospital wondering if he would walk again, his career over, and Mossy [Paterson] was away with a bad injury [a split kidney] too.
“Everything else, the highs and the lows, was just part of the privilege of playing international rugby and I am just proud I had the chance to experience it.”
Parks always had a competitive zeal and, as the top scorer in Celtic League history with 1,518 points from 155 games, would like nothing more than to follow recent man-of-the-match performances with another influential display this evening that hands his old club a second defeat on the trot, and moves his new one away from the RaboDirect Pro12 basement in the style he managed a decade ago in Glasgow.
But he recognises that the Scottish team blowing into windy Galway tonight, with a budget more than twice the size of Connacht’s, are a different proposition to the 2003 vintage.
“Scottish rugby has changed a lot, at pro level and with the national set-up, to when I first arrived,” he said, “and Glasgow are the best example of that.
“Gregor [Townsend] has done some great things and with the number of young boys coming through, who really are the cream of the crop in Scotland, there is a sense there that they are building something that can make Glasgow and Scottish rugby more competitive more consistently.
“But we’ll have plenty rain for them, and wind probably this weekend, and we’re pretty fired up to win here. It’s actually only the second time I’ve played against Glasgow since I left four years ago, because I was involved with Scotland or left out when I was at Cardiff, and so my first time against them was at the end of last season, where we lost here at the Sportsground after they brought on Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Niko Matawalu in the second half – Matawalu was a real thorn. But that just underlines what I’m saying about the unbelievable depth they have now.
“We didn’t have that ten years ago, and so there would be times you’d play with a knock or not on great form. That’s not the case there now and I’m looking forward to seeing boys like Chris Fusaro, a fantastic player, who, with others like Alex Dunbar, were just coming through when I was there and are going to be the core of Scottish rugby going forward.
“Glasgow seem to have an amazing number of players who can step in now, so it doesn’t matter who is playing this weekend, and who’s not, it will be difficult for us, but hopefully we can spring a surprise.”
Knowing Scottish rugby as well as anyone, he concludes: “The expectations are always going to be high because people love their sport in Scotland, which is fantastic, but rugby is not the number one which is something that people have to understand, so we don’t have the numbers, which makes it harder to be competitive consistently.
“But that also makes the achievements so special and what I enjoyed was that every time you went out on to Murrayfield, or any ground around the world, you knew that you were going out there with a team, a nation of fighters behind you. That feeling is something I will never forget, and I’ll always be proud that I was given the chance to be a part of it.
“But, now, if you don’t mind, I have a match to think about, and the Galway wind.”
The wicked laugh says it all about a man who has experienced much of what the sporting vagaries can throw at him, and remains hungry for more.
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