Geoff Parling is not one of the big beasts of the second row. In fact, England’s lineout leader admits that he still wouldn’t weigh as much as a Bakkies Botha, Wade Dooley – or the Scottish behemoth Jim Hamilton – if he grew a third arm. Instead, Parling is built more like the streamlined second rows New Zealand have favoured since their mid-90s combo of Ian Jones and Robin Brooke broke the mould by showing that they could outrun, outjump and outwork most of the inhabitants of rugby’s land of the giants.
Parling may have added a stone and a half to his rangy 6ft 6ins frame thanks to a tailored weights regime since he joined Leicester from Newcastle four seasons ago as a back five utility forward, filling out to 114kg (17st 13lbs), but he is essentially still a lean, lightweight lock model who has bulked up, rather than a massive combine harvester.
Parling is not easily ruffled, which is just as well because the modern lineout boffin needs a cool, calculating mindset at all times. However, when I met him this week during England’s training stint at the FA’s impressive new St George’s training centre near Burton-on-Trent, he faltered momentarily on hearing Richard Cockerill’s description of him. The Tigers director of rugby said recently of Parling, “Genetically, he’s not particularly blessed with size or physique”, and then went on to congratulate him as an intelligent operator who makes the most of his attributes.
Parling doesn’t wait for the second bit. “You could have said that even more about ‘Cockers’. Look, I’m certainly not one of those 125kg second rows like Bakkies Botha or the Toulouse lock Yoann Maestri, whose down as 110kg but is more like 120kg. I can run a lot easier than most second rows, and if I go away on holiday for four weeks I won’t come back a fat bastard. I’m happy at 114kg, which is not small. I’m mad keen in the gym, but the thing I don’t have is massive bulging muscles popping out – although I’d love to – so people may have this perception. But I do alright. Just because I’ve got this reputation as a thinker and a lineout man doesn’t mean I can’t do the other bit.”
When I suggest to Parling that another of his possible autumn opponents, the New Zealand second row Sam Whitelock, may find it even more difficult to do the heavy-duty work after being listed on the official All Blacks website as being only 102kg, he waves it away. “I wouldn’t believe anything in those stats. There’s no way that’s right.”
Further research indicates that the 6ft 7ins Whitelock is more like 110kg, although the 2011 World Cup winner has been listed at a number of different weights, including 108kg in the programme for the final against France. Whatever the truth about Whitelock’s actual weight there is ample evidence that New Zealand favour mobility and athleticism in their locks over brute force and body mass, with Luke Romano weighing in at a modest 110kg, and even the 6ft 8ins newcomer Brodie Retallick tipping the scales at 115kg.
That is only a kilo more than Parling, whose place in Lancaster’s scheme becomes clearer given the England’s coach’s desire to lift some pages from the New Zealand play-book this autumn, especially when it comes to having mobility and footballing nous among his tight five forwards rather than blinkered grunts.
Ask Parling why he thinks England’s decade-long lousy Twickenham record against the Southern Hemisphere nations will change this autumn and he says it stems from the summer tour to South Africa being an awakening.
“In the first 20 minutes of the second Test in Johannesburg we were poor and they played well, but we came back and were pushing them at the end after scoring through Ben Youngs off a 20 metre driving maul. Then, in the third Test in Port Elizabeth we matched them for physicality, if not more.They are like any good international team, apart from in the back row where they didn’t have a genuine ball-winner but had three big carriers, like Willem Alberts, instead. Their structures are a bit simpler than some in that they tend to have everyone singing from the same hymn-book, coming round the corner and bashing it up.”
Parling says that England returned home with genuine self-belief, and a deep desire to set the record straight against the Southern Hemisphere.
“Our last game at Twickenham was that big win against Ireland – and we want to get four wins there this autumn. It frustrates me when people said we did well in South Africa because we lost the series two nil, and we can’t just be plucky losers. We appreciate there’s probably still a learning curve, but we’ve got to learn from winning. We need to be a winning side.”
He adds: “From that tour I’m confident we can beat South Africa on our own patch. A lot of people outside the squad were not expecting us to do that well in the Six Nations or on the summer tour, but we always had that belief in ourselves. We have a confident squad with decent structures in place that everybody understands – and (in this autumn series) everyone in the squad wants it really badly.”
However, he says that England’s passion has to be matched by precision and the ability to adapt to whatever Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand throw at them over the next five weeks.
“One of my strengths is reading the game and trying to help the players around me. You can do your analysis beforehand, but then find that it’s all different on the day and that you have to adapt on the move.”
Parling says that adaptability is an essential component of his main area of responsibility, the lineout, and that if things go wrong ultimately the buck stops with him. He says this was the case last weekend when Tom Youngs, the Leicester hooker who is likely to to be an autumn series starter following the injury to Dylan Hartley, hit a rough patch against Gloucester last weekend resulting in four lost throws.
“It really grinds me when the hooker gets all the blame. It’s wrong because it might be that someone’s cocked up the timing, or the jump – for example, the first lineout we lost against Gloucester was when one of our players just didn’t jump.
“Tom Youngs is the exact player the lads in the Leicester pack want to play with. He’s the sort who if he makes a mistake he will do everything to make up for it, say, at the next scrum. He’s a very good scrummager – very quick on the hit – and he’s mad keen for that sort of confrontation.
“If I call it and something goes wrong it’s my responsibility – even if it’s the hooker’s fault. Maybe I could have given him a different call, like an easier throw to the front a couple of times if he’s under pressure. It’s important to know your players and their strengths and to react all the time. Sometimes I change a call a few seconds before the ball is thrown in, and that’s when you must have the right structures and communication.”
Parling is unequivocal that Cockerill was right to back Youngs to come through his trial by fire at Kingsholm rather than bench him, and he backs the young Tigers No.2 to do England proud.
“It’s a big move from centre to hooker, but Tom is an outstanding talent who has played very well this season. It’s tough that the one lineout blip he’s had came the week before we came into camp, whereas the weekend before against the Ospreys we won 13 out of 14 throws against virtually an international pack.
“However, he’s got resilience and bags of character, and he always reacts positively. Experience definitely helps in this game, but the only way you get it is by being in those situations and seeing if you can come through.”
Parling is 29, and he accepts that with only eight caps to his name – he made his England debut off the bench against Scotland at Murrayfield in February – he is hardly infallible at Test level. However, he is absolutely clear that a good lineout can survive everything, including code-cracking.
“The reality is that it’s very occasional that a call might be picked up on, and if the attacking side gets their lineout drill 100 percent right it is very hard for the defending side to win it. It’s all about execution of the call, the lift, the speed across the ground, the dummies, and the throw. If they go like clockwork you will win the ball even if they know where it’s going.”
When it comes to knowing what direction to take in his own career, Parling’s judgement has been sound. He says he had faith in himself even when he was shunting between the back row and lock at Newcastle, or laterly when he was sidelined for the best part of the 2010-11 season after a knee reconstruction.
“I always had the belief that I could one day play for England – but you never know until you’ve got the opportunity, and I wanted that chance.
“The reason I left Newcastle was because we weren’t winning anything and I didn’t feel I was the best player I could be. I wanted to go to an environment where I would push myself, and going to Leicester I knew I could say I had given it my best crack, even if it didn’t work out. So far, it has worked out okay, but you are aware there are always players ready to step into your place.”
Parling’s ability to read the game means he has a habit of being one step ahead – and while he may not be the biggest second row beast, or the most powerful, he has enough grit, determination, and cool-headed focus to make him one of England’s most important players as Lancaster’s side prepare for their biggest challenge.