Parks happy with life out west as a guiding hand to youth

Thu, Sep 27, 2012, 01:00

The former Scotland outhalf is relishing his time in Connacht and the chance to use his experience to help develop a young team, writes GERRY THORNLEY

DAMN HIM and blast him. Dan Parks remains the last man to score in a Test match at Croke Park; his 79th-minute penalty from the left touchline into a capricious wind earning Scotland a 23-20 win over Ireland in the 2010 Six Nations finale. As much as the kick itself, Parks also vividly remembers Jonathan Sexton visiting the Scottish dressingroom, despite his disappointment at being replaced and of losing.

“It was a special moment, the last game of the Six Nations. Jonny had started and just after the game, he came into the dressingroom and offered me his jersey. I tried to swap but he wanted nothing of it. He said it was my day and he was happy to give me his jersey. For a young guy to do something like that is pretty special.”

On the eve of his debut against Leinster and Sexton tomorrow night at the Sportsground, Connacht hope he can bring his match-winning touch to them. Casually dressed in runners, jeans, T-shirt and tracksuit top, despite his boyish appearance Parks is 34 now, but he is the league’s all-time leading points scorer to add to his haul of 266 for Scotland (including a Scottish record of 17 drop-goals).

Mindful of seven bonus-point defeats last season, and with an experienced, goalkicking general to guide the young backs around him, Parks can be a missing link. Just as pertinently, the Western-most outpost in European rugby might be what Parks needs too.

Eyeing a move to France, Parks was surprised when Connacht backs coach Billy Millard called him last December. “Then the more Eric Elwood got involved the more I started to think about it – a young team, me in the latter days of my career – I thought this was a good opportunity and challenge for me.”

He also saw this as a better stepping stone into coaching than the potential dead end of French club rugby. In the end, it was the right fit for me. I believe I still have a lot to offer, especially the game I play with the young guys coming through.

“I’d like to give them a bit of knowledge and hopefully steer the ship in the right direction, because I think there is a lot of good going on here.”

“I play rugby because I love the game and I love the competitive side of it. To me it’s always been about that. I think that’s why everyone as a little kid first plays rugby, not because you might become a professional one day.”

That love of the game kicked in when he moved to Marsden High School at 14, despite his family being big Sydney Roosters’ rugby league fans, and his paternal grandfather Arthur being a keen cricketer and tennis player while his dad Neal is “the biggest armchair sports fan you’ll ever meet”.

After Marsden, where Parks played everything, he broke into the New South Wales Under-21 and A sides, along with spells at West Harbour, Southern Districts and Eastern Suburbs.

Parks’ maternal grandfather, Dan, was born in Kilbirnie, Ayrshire, though that wasn’t a consideration when he first moved to Glasgow aged 25. “I thought it was going to be for two years, and here we are nearly 10 years later. It’s been an incredible ride.”

He’d never met Matt Williams prior to the latter inviting him to a Scottish camp, followed by his debut away to Wales in 2004 at the Millennium. “The roof was closed and the noise that stadium generates is just incredible. My mother flew over and my ex-girlfriend was there.”

Although he and a host of others would be retained during the Frank Hadden era, Parks was often still seen as Williams’ poster boy. “Certainly in Scotland,” says Parks, “but I stopped reading the press in 2005.”

Scotland’s player of the tournament at the 2007 World Cup, Parks was omitted by Andy Robinson in 2009, but after the opening 2010 Six Nations defeat to France, Parks was recalled in round two, against Wales at the Millennium Stadium again, for his second coming. “It was the most incredible game of rugby I’ve ever played in,” he says of that dramatic, 31-24 defeat. “We led 24-10, Tom Evans was forced to retire from rugby that day, Chris Paterson broke his ribs, we had two yellow cards at the end of the game and Rory Lamont buggered his knee. Unbelievable.”

He was man of the match that day, and against Italy and Ireland, as well as the first of a two-Test series win away to Argentina when scoring all of Scotland’s 24 points.

Like Nathan Hines and others, he was of a mind to retire after the 2011 World Cup, but with Ruaidhri Jackson, played the Six Nations opener at home to England. Scotland butchered seven line breaks that day, and a Charlie Hodgson chargedown try off a Parks kick contributed to a 13-6 defeat. He spoke to Robinson the next day and decided it was time to move on.

“There were highs and lows, but that’s sport, and it’s something I’ll always treasure.”

Parks gets pigeon holed at the best of times as a kicking outhalf, but it doesn’t bother him. “That’s fine. The reality is that a lot of games are won on kicks. What can you do? To me, rugby is all about winning games.”

Fighting against the odds with Connacht ought not be unlike representing Scotland. Frustratingly, a pre-season hamstring strain delayed this debut and now he has to hit the ground running for successive derbies and Connacht’s opening Heineken Cup games.

“It’s been a tricky start, one win from four. But it is what it is, we’ve just got to go for it. With the injury it’s been 16 weeks since I’ve played, now I’m dying to get out there. I never really lost it, but I feel revitalised. It’s made me appreciate how much I still love playing and being around rugby.”

PARKS: in points

International: Scotland

Played: 67 (40+20R)

Points: 266.

Pro 12: Glasgow and Cardiff

Played: 132 (111+21R)

Points: 1,341.

Heineken Cup: Glasgow and Cardiff

Played: 52 (49+3R)

Points: 537.

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