'There is no better feeling than beating a top French team away'
Connacht’s Dan Parks is relishing tonight’s game against Biarritz, writes KEITH DUGGAN
When Connacht met up in the Sportsground for training earlier this week, they spoke about what awaits in Biarritz tonight. Their marvellous home win against the French side guarantees them a scalding reception in the return leg. A seething management, an indignant crowd and a French team with a lot to prove: it won’t be dull.
“Oh, it’s going to be exciting,” Dan Parks said brightly. Connacht had just finished an afternoon training session and outside it was Baltic, but Parks sat in the clubhouse wearing parka shorts and flip-flops and the air of a man who has settled in well to life in Galway.
“These are the games you want to play in. It is going to be hostile and you have to be prepared and it is just . . . different.”
Confirmation that Mike McCarthy will indeed sign and play for Leinster next season has been the one disappointment of a wonderful week for Connacht rugby.
McCarthy’s lion-hearted performances for the western province elevated him to the international ranks, where he duly shone in the autumn Tests: it was inevitable that the reigning European champions would come calling sooner or later.
Losing heavyweight players to Leinster and Munster is nothing new for Connacht even if it is an ongoing source of frustration to the squad and supporters.
But a laughably cruel injury list has forced Connacht to adapt a go-with-what-we-have attitude this season anyway and along with McCarthy, the leadership shown by Parks has been vital to their season.
Parks made his debut in the stunning 34-6 crushing of Leinster, a match which advertised the ongoing struggle for parity of esteem which Connacht faces. “Well, I try not to get caught up in that,” said Parks diplomatically. “It is there and you can see it and you realise it when the derby games are going on. I had missed 11 weeks with injury – the longest of my career – so I was really hungry by the time that game came around. We hadn’t shown anything like that form against Leinster so it was brilliant.
“And then we came rocketing back down to earth against a very good Ulster team. But whether we have won or lost this season, the guys have responded – they want to learn and get better. Everyone saw what it meant to us on Friday after the Biarritz game. Everyone has been buzzing and happy around the ground this week.
“And in the city, anyone you run into on the street is very positive about rugby. The expectations are realistic here . . . people know that the players are doing their best on the pitch.”
One of the unexpected features of this season has been the assured and thrilling partnership Parks has struck up with young Kieran Marmion, who has excelled at scrumhalf since gaining his first cap for the province in August.
Marmion’s delivery is fast and accurate and the variety which Parks has introduced to the Connacht three-quarters line has made them an unpredictable attacking force.
Parks shrugs at the idea that the quality of his passing was overlooked before this season and that he was categorised as a kicking number 10.
“Well, I think Eric and the coaches are pushing for that style of play. We want to use players like Robbie and Dave and we have exciting players like Tiernan on the wing and Fetu’u [Vainikolo] . . . I mean Fetu’u is a remarkable rugby player. He is the kind of guy you want on the ball. So you need the power up front and the platform.
“You can’t just fling it around. At times we have let ourselves down but once we work together, we play well. Over the years, I have been seen as a ‘certain kind’ of 10. But it is like anything: if you are good at something, you are going to get labelled as that. I’ve never been bothered by those comments.”
Parks’ repeatedly demonstrated his poise over eight seasons playing with Scotland, the country of his maternal grandfather. Glasgow became home after he moved from Sydney and he retains a strong affection for the city. He ended his international career abruptly last February but his decision to sign for Connacht was a coup and an endorsement of the province’s ambitions.
Under Michael Bradley, the team proved itself capable of producing flash results out of the blue. In Elwoods’ time, they are playing more expansive rugby and are pushing themselves for consistent streaks to match the bravura nights like the win against Biarritz. In short, they want to make Connacht rugby an attractive proposition.
“I do think we are doing that,” Parks says. “I didn’t play against Cardiff and it was a miserable evening. Since then, only the Treviso game was wet. So we have been blessed with good weather and it is a really good pitch here.
“The crowd get so involved . . . it all means you can play good rugby. Look, you do understand that in Galway, the weather can be nasty sometimes. But when we get a chance, we want to play rugby as much as anyone else. That is our mindset.”
A win in France would keep the pressure on Harlequins for the last round of pool games in mid-January. But it would also help to strengthen Connacht’s reputation as a club worth joining. While McCarthy’s wish to play with one of the top clubs in Europe is understandable, Parks’ profile with Connacht will help to sell the club to potential players in the future.
“This is a small city, which I am used to. And people have been fantastic to me here – even when we don’t get the results. It makes me respect the fans all the more because they have a genuine understanding. We want our fans to expect us to do well and to win but they have an appreciation of our efforts too.”
This is a hectic week for Connacht. Tonight will be a severe test of their European credentials. Regardless of the result, they have to regroup next week for the Christmas derby against Munster on Saturday 22nd. Parks watched Munster in the Saracens game and allows himself a smile when he thinks of that provincial clash.
“Yeah, that’s going to be physical,” he predicts. “They play with a certain style which we have to encounter. But we will look at that on Monday next. For now we have been talking about what we can expect from Biarritz.”
Four years ago, Parks played in Biarritz with Glasgow. He loved it. The visitors started promisingly and it wasn’t long before the locals began grumbling and hissing. At half-time, there was a mood of revolt about the place. But then Biarritz conjured two quick tries from nothing late in the game and that was it. Pride and equanimity were restored. But the atmosphere stayed with him.
Sometimes, the Sportsground can feel that raucous, particularly when the team is on the verge of something special. If they are to produce a memorable double against Biarritz, it will require a vintage exhibition of poise and control from the outhalf and captain.
“We feel as if we are in a good place . . . we want to enjoy playing in France and what we are facing there. A lot of our guys have never been to a place like this. So there is so much experience here.
“Look, there is no better feeling in the game than beating a top French team away.”