Planet Rugby

Retiring Parks bears no regrets

29th July 2014 14:45

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Highs and lows: Dan Parks

Having announced his retirement from the game last month, former Scotland fly-half Dan Parks reflects on a decade and more spent traversing rugby's peaks and troughs.

The spotlight that shines with little mercy upon those who don elite rugby's number ten jerseys can act as both boost and burden. The moments of despondency, the interception passes, the charge-down tries, the World Cup exits that accompany any professional career are illuminated with the same intensity as the thrilling triumphs and match-winning goals.

At times during his eight-year international tenure, it represented a laser on Parks' back; seeking out the ex-Scotland pivot's darkest days for all that he tried to shield himself from its glare.

The noughties have scarcely been kind to Scottish rugby, with three wooden spoons and ten bottom-two finishes in the Six Nations since the turn of the millennium.

And as the Murrayfield masses grew restless, it became all too easy to point fingers at the chipper Aussie with the antipodean drawl, whose tendency to stand deep in the pocket, run lateral lines and send raking touch-finders arrowing towards the corner flags frustrated many a purist.

"In fairness, mate, I do know how to pass a rugby ball!" he jokes.

It was easy too to label Parks a rugby mercenary, a journeyman who failed to make the grade in his native land, who took advantage of a familial loophole to jet thousands of miles in pursuit of international honours. The public criticism and derision of his heritage was a constant throughout his days in navy blue; it could not have been more misguided.

After a brief spell with Leeds Tykes, then Glasgow boss Hugh Campbell drafted in the Sydneysider to complement his brood of tyros in 2003. Parks jumped at the opportunity to play professional rugby, but thoughts of national honours were far from his mind.

"When I first came to Glasgow, it was supposed to be for two years - it was never going to be any longer," says Parks.

"I had been playing club rugby in Sydney for quite a while and I'd been reasonably successful from an individual perspective. But if I wanted to be a professional rugby player, I had to go to the UK.

"I was lucky enough that Glasgow were interested. My girlfriend at the time was keen to come over with me, so that's what we did; we signed up."

Instead of a two-year stint in Scotland's largest city, Parks spent the seven that followed growing with the club as it matured and developed from Celtic League obscurity to a serious unit challenging at the business end of the domestic ladder and claiming several continental scalps along the way. And he fell in love with his adopted nation, a paternal grandfather and a surprise call-up leading to his first cap of 67 in 2004.

"I never contemplated playing for Scotland when I first arrived," he admits.

"My thoughts were all about playing rugby professionally and that's what Glasgow gave me the opportunity to do. That's what I was focused on and that's what I thought was going to be happening.

"It was something I would never have turned down and I don't think anyone would. I feel very privileged to have been able to play for Scotland, not just once but as many times as I did. People might have said, 'he couldn't make it in Australia,' that wasn't my thought process at all, and I didn't heed any of those comments."

The first two years of Test rugby flew by, as head coach Matt Williams ended a disastrous reign in the wake of the 2005 Six Nations, Frank Hadden took over, and Scotland recorded a morale-boosting hat-trick of victories in the 2006 tournament.

With the World Cup looming, 2007 brought with it a change in the sport's physiological makeup. Along with many of their counterparts, Scotland returned beefed up in August from a pre-season chiefly spent toiling in the bowels of the Murrayfield weights room, preparing for the tournament with Tests against Ireland and South Africa.

Adorned by veins that popped and biceps that bulged with sinew, Springboks enforcer Bakkies Botha chided his opponents for appearing 'fat' when the two packs squared up for a line-out.

"I'm still probably one of the weakest rugby players I've ever known; by no means did I turn into a giant," laughs Parks, who invested more graft than most to augment his naturally slight physique.

"But I look back on the pictures and see the size of some of the guys at the time; we put a lot of weight on that summer. It was all down to the amount of work we did in the pre-season, we were doing two weights sessions a day.

"It gave me confidence going into games - if you don't feel strong, like you can compete with these giants then you're going to be in trouble."

This was the confidence, or lack thereof, that transcended Parks' play.

It was oft noted in the Scotland camp that when the playful pivot had a spring in his step of a match-day morning, things invariably ran smoothly. It was a cause for concern should he appear introverted over his cornflakes.

Team-mates fed off his verve and his buzz, just as they grew nervous when they sensed their main man was not in control. With the right mindset, Parks was a ruthless game-manager, possessed of a devastating array of thunderous punts and deft chips. He was honest and intensely likeable, but he craved praise from those around him; daily verification of his talents became his sustenance.

Bereft of that support, bouts of fragility were the norm. Up cranked the pressure, and down fell his head. It took time to bounce back from adversity.

The 2007 showpiece ended in an agonising quarter-final defeat to Argentina, the sort of spirited near miss that typifies most recent Scottish fortunes, but Parks revelled in the French sunshine.

His team-mates, perhaps delivering a message of rebellion to those who continued to hound the fly-half, voted him player of the tournament. It was a 'happy time in my life', but the tables were soon to be turned again.

A year later, Parks was roundly booed after a brace of penalties slid past the Murrayfield uprights during another gallant loss to the Boks. There followed a tumultuous period that saw poor domestic form combine with a drink-driving charge and a change of national coach as Andy Robinson replaced Hadden to raise serious questions over his future in Scotland.

"(Glasgow head coach) Sean Lineen gave me a few extra weeks during the 2009 pre-season to get my head right, and I went back to Australia - that was the best thing that could have happened," he acknowledges.

"That really got me focused on my rugby; I realised how much it meant to me. I came back and had the best pre-season I've ever had. I knew that I'd let people down, and I knew that I was a better person and player than I was showing. It was time to start delivering and that's what I think I did."

After Robinson handed him a recall during the 2010 Six Nations, the liberated Parks hit the form of his life. He kicked over fifty points, bagged three man of the match awards and lashed over a towering late penalty amid the Croke Park maelstrom to hand Scotland a deserved 20-23 triumph at the climax of a tournament that should have yielded more than one victory.

"That was an unreal tournament," he admits.

"I felt like I could play worry-free, the shackles were off. It certainly came through in my performances.

"We broke Irish hearts at that last-ever game at Croke Park. They were going for the Triple Crown and we really had nothing to play for, except that we recognised we were a lot better than the results had shown. It was a very special day."

The wild celebrations that day sat starkly at odds with the malaise that swamped the Scotland camp in the wake of the World Cup a year later, Robinson's charges twice snatching defeat from the jaws of victory to lose narrowly to Argentina and England.

Parks, forced onto his left foot by the fiendishly offside Felipe Contepomi, missed a drop-goal in the dying embers of the Pumas clash, before coming on as a first half replacement for the injured Ruaridh Jackson to tackle the Auld Enemy.

"Obviously, Contepomi was very much offside, but I wasn't actually calling for the ball," he says.

"It just came to me quite suddenly, and I couldn't go off my right foot because there was too much pressure, and I don't know if I'd ever attempted a left-foot drop-goal in my life. Argentina got away with it that day; it's just one of those things.

"Then we had a chance against England where again we played very well for long periods and Chris Ashton scored to beat us. I was on the bench and Ruaridh got injured early. You don't expect those things to happen - fifty minutes in, I was panting really badly. My legs were completely drained. But it's something you find inside yourself, you keep going. We got close but it wasn't to be."

As the Scots flew home, and a deal that took him from Cardiff Blues, where he had predictably polarised opinion, to Connacht signed, Parks reckoned his time with Scotland was up. But when injuries to key players mounted, he answered Robinson's call for one last crack at the English harbouring thoughts of revenge.

There would be no fairytale finale. Charlie Hodgson swooped to charge-down his opposite number on the Scottish line and grounded the ball for the decisive score in a dire 6-13 loss. The visibly distraught Parks played poorly, and the old denigrations resurfaced from a rugby public that had always struggled to love him. Still, he bore no regrets.

"Andy spoke to me and asked if I would make myself available for the first couple of games. Any chance you get to play for Scotland, especially if you're needed, you obviously want to play," he adds.

"We were so much the better team that day, but you get charged down once, and there's a try. I would have liked to finish on a more positive note, but it wasn't to be. That's life.

"I don't regret it, because it gave me another opportunity to play against England, and I honestly believed that we were going to win that match. I still to this day don't understand how we didn't."

And so onwards he went, remaining undeterred by the pain of defeat and the sting of public vitriol. Eric Elwood, the legendary Ireland fly-half who might walk into any pub in Galway without paying for a drink sold Parks the vision he had for the province, casting the veteran as a mentor and senior figure around which he could build his team.

"It's an absolutely stunning part of the world," he says of Ireland's windswept west coast.

"I met Eric, and he spoke volumes about the place, I could see the enthusiasm he had for Connacht and that really got me interested. They had quite a young team with a few experienced players, and the role I would have with those guys was something I was really looking forward to.

"There was some really good young talent there at the time, and I was going to be able to work with those players and help bring them through - that was all very important to me."

Neither a glamour transfer then, nor the cash-laden move to French shores favoured by players in the twilight of their careers, but perhaps the bracing chill and breath-taking scenery where the natives embraced him was a fitting backdrop for one of Scotland's most divisive figures to bring down the curtain.

By Jamie Lyall

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