Either a hero or zero, Dan Parks never did it by halves

Dan Parks celebrates winning the Calcutta Cup in 2006. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Dan Parks celebrates winning the Calcutta Cup in 2006. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THERE are players who will always polarise opinions, but few have done so as sharply as Dan Parks in the past eight years.

The slightly-built, Sydney-born stand-off was always a talented player with particularly good kicking skills, honed night after night kicking at telegraph poles as a schoolboy in his street. It was practise that was, ultimately, to bring him 67 international caps and highlights from two World Cups, a series of ‘Man of the Match’ awards and memorable and historic triumphs, notably against England, France and South Africa at Murrayfield and on the road in Argentina and Ireland.

Parks came through Sydney club rugby and represented New South Wales at under-21 level and senior ‘A’ level, but could not find a route to pro level at a time when the Waratahs were beginning to make a mark in Super 12. He came to the UK initially in 2001, but failed to land a contract at Leeds after a three-month trial. Two years later, he came across Glasgow’s radar, at a time when there was a distinct shortage of stand-offs in the Scottish game.

Tommy Hayes, a New Zealander, had held down the No 10 jersey but, after representing the Cook Islands he could not play for Scotland and youngster Barry Irving was the only other fly-half at the club. Scots Gregor Townsend and Duncan Hodge were in the twilight of their careers, Chris Paterson was not viewed as a good option at ten by his coaches – we will not go there, again – and Edinburgh and the Borders turned to Kiwi Brendan Laney and Samoan Tanner Vili respectively. Laney was Scottish-qualified and Parks was too, through a maternal grandfather born in Kilbirnie, Ayrshire, and Parks’ skills were the perfect antidote to Scotland coach Matt Williams’ well-stated disappointment at the lack of basic skills in the Scottish players he took charge of after the World Cup in 2003.

Having told Townsend to retire, he chose Paterson as his first stand-off, but fast-tracked Parks into the team after three appearances off the bench. Parks’ kicking precision brought a reliability that Williams held tight and took him past Gordon Ross, and even though his defence was poor, and he would be shuffled to the wing in defensive patterns as others covered for him, Parks started 18 of the next 19 Scotland Tests, and scored his first try in the 100-8 win over Japan. Frank Hadden had taken over as Scotland coach from Williams in 2005 and, also working to hide Parks’ weaknesses, he liked having a stand-off who could dictate a game through his boot.

Hadden used the different styles of Parks and Phil Godman, but Parks started more games and it was at the 2007 World Cup in France that his ability to polarise reared significantly. He emerged from the tournament as the Scotland players’ player of the World Cup, yet his decisions to kick much of Scotland’s possession – as requested by Hadden, probably – left players, coaches and supporters regretting a lack of belief in attack.

Parks struggled with confidence in 2008 as more was demanded of him in an attacking role, and when Andy Robinson took the helm with Scotland he was humiliatingly left out of the first 44-man training squad in 2009. But within six months Robinson had been forced into a U-turn, Parks having outshone Godman in the Magners League derbies with his control of the games and points-scoring – he became the first player to reach 1,000 points in the Celtic league – and won back his Scotland jersey against Wales in the unforgettable second match of 2010 in Cardiff. Parks was voted ‘Man of the Match’ in the Millennium Stadium and followed up with the same prize in Scotland’s defeat to Italy and historic win over Ireland at Croke Park, where his steely focus and world-class kicking ability was clear in the match-winning penalty he delivered from close to the touchline and in a gale. Parks went on to guide Scotland to a first-ever series win on tour that summer, in two Tests in Argentina, where he again was voted ‘Man of the Match’.

Off the field Parks had also had to come to terms with an issue with alcohol, twice being charged with drink-driving. He was not guilty the first time but handed an 18-month ban after being found guilty on the second occasion in 2009. He had just signed a new two-year deal to stay at Glasgow, but was released from that in 2010 to join Cardiff and headed to Wales after the Argentina tour.

Despite an outward exuberance, Parks could struggle for confidence which, as he received growing criticism from across the Scottish game for his failure to offer an attacking threat in games – he had been booed by his own supporters at Murrayfield – only underlined the tremendous strength of character he showed in the 2010 comeback.

He lost the No 10 jersey to Ruaridh Jackson last year, but stepped back in when Jackson was injured in the World Cup and started against England on Saturday because the Glasgow fly-half was still sidelined by hamstring trouble. However, he had a poor game, his attempts to take the attack forward foundering on the one great talent that brought him 67 caps, his kicking, and when Charlie Hodgson pounced to charge down his clearance kick and score the match-winning try, the clamour for Parks’ head picked up pace again.

The Scotland coaches were planning to leave him out of this weekend’s game with Wales in Cardiff and start instead with Greig Laidlaw, the Edinburgh scrum-half-turned-stand-off.

Parks decided to end his own torment and walk away now, and, sadly, he departs the Test stage on a sour note.

He is not the first Scot or Test performer to do so and will not be the last. Parks did not pick himself nor deem himself good enough for the navy jersey. Others did. And so he did not deserve as much criticism as he received merely for playing. Like every other player, he deserved criticism when he played poorly and earned praise when he played well.

He enjoyed an international career in Scotland perhaps because the Scottish game had a paucity of choice, but he contributed much to Glasgow and Scotland and as he enters the home stretch, the likeable Australian-Scot deserves now to be able to reflect on a career that brought many highlights.

Dan Parks factfile

Born: 26 May 1978 in Hornsby, New South Wales. Now aged 33.

Early career: Grew up in Sydney, and played for West Harbour, Southern Districts and Eastern Suburbs. He also represented New South Wales at under-21 level.

Clubs: Moved to UK in 2001 to become a professional rugby player. Played six games for Leeds before returning to Australia to rejoin Eastern Suburbs. Came back to UK in 2003 to sign for Glasgow, and was top points scorer every season until his departure to Cardiff Blues in 2010. First player to reach 1,000 points in the Magners League.

Scotland debut: Qualified through maternal grandmother from Ayrshire. First full cap was against Wales in 2004, a 23-10 defeat.

Scotland career: Won 67 caps, having been a regular in the national squad up until 2008 when he started an 18-month absence for on and off the field reasons, but returned in 2010 and immediately earned three man-of-the match accolades in the RBS Six Nations Championship. His Scotland career came to a sad end with a poor performance against England on Saturday. Final tally of 266 points, including 17 drop goals.