Geoff Parling was back on familiar ground recently, as he took a coaching session with the juniors at his former club Stockton. Sports Editor Nick Loughlin went along to speak with a British Lion proud of his roots
HE’S sat entrenched in the bowels of some of the finest rugby stadiums in the world preparing for some of the biggest matches on the grandest of stages.
But you can’t help feel Geoff Parling is at home at Station Road, Norton, Stockton Rugby Club.
The surroundings may not be Twickenham ahead of a Six Nations encounter, or the ANZ Stadium in Sydney preparing for the final Test for the British Lions.
But, for the Leicester and England lock, it will always be his club. If it wasn’t for his formative years as a junior playing the sport for the fun of it, he wouldn’t be where he is today. It’s a point he’s keen to get across.
Parling, 30, missed the recent Six Nations as he recovers from a shoulder injury. As his international team-mates were in Italy for the final game, he was back on Teesside, putting on a coaching session with the juniors to hopefully inspire some volunteers to get along and help the ranks.
The same coaches who spotted Parling’s schoolboy potential remain. Nick Moore and Keith Bell are as keen as ever. Finding the Geoff Parling may not happen, but there’s more than enough enthusiasm out there in their commitment.
“I’ve very fond memories of this place and playing my rugby here,’’ he reflected. “I started at 12, we went to the Darlington Festival with a good group of lads who really really enjoyed ourselves.
“It might sound weird, but playing rugby from the age of 12–16 was probably the most enjoyable. No pressure, just about playing and enjoying ourselves. The culture we created was all down to enjoyment - and it helps when you have a very good team as well.
“When you get to 16 you do get a naturally high level of drop outs, but we didn’t here as it was so enjoyable.
“We had end of season jollies and trips away, more of a trip for the parents than the kids probably, but it was all about enjoyment.’’ With Moore and Bell not as mobile around the pitch as they were when Parling was under their wing, the club is one of many looking for volunteers to help out.
There’s no payment, no bonuses or back handers. You will get a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich if you deserve it.
“It’s about giving kids an opportunity, that’s the role of the local rugby club isn’t it?’’ reflected Parling. “You want to bring people together from all different areas and backgrounds and that’s why volunteers are so vital.
“Every Tuesday we used come down here, rain and snow and all weathers, and the coaches were here. On a Saturday all the parents would come down and pick everyone up, ferry them around and help. If you don’t have those people helping, joining in, then where are you?’’ And there’s little danger of the grounded Parling forgetting his roots and his formative years that shaped him into the giant he is today.
“It’s nice to come back,’’ he admitted. “I always try and help out when I can. I came back a few weeks ago and did a question and answer and auctioned some things off for the club, some old pieces of kit.
“I’ve got tickets for internationals for my old coaches and I actually got a scholarship at Durham School so I got my old coach there tickets too – I think it’s important to give something back. Remember if it wasn’t for these coaches volunteering and giving up their spare time, who is to know where I would be now?
“At Twickenham for the South Africa international (in 2012), we had the mascots lined up and I made sure I paired up with young Josh Crozier, whose dad is a coach here at Stockton.
“As we came out of the changing room, you don’t know which mascot you are with – I quickly saw Josh and grabbed him! He was pretty nervous I could tell, but it was all part of the day for him and it’s good for Stockton to have that memory in the future.’’ Linking up the players with mascots and putting them in touch with their roots is part of the ethos created by Stuart Lancaster. It’s one Parling fully understands.
There’s nothing like traditional values in Lancaster’s eyes. Pride in the shirt is the England way.
Parling said: “Stuart Lancaster realises the importance of the England side. He always talks about the pride in the shirt and what it means.
“We have mascots coming to watch training sessions to get involved. He’s got a very level background, he was a coach at West Park in Leeds and is a former school teacher.
“He’s had the England squad training at his old club – I’m sure the lads would rather have been in Portugal like they normally do, but that’s his way of getting the squad back into the community.
“All those little things he’s done add up and maybe in the past there was a them and us mentality, some distance between the squad and the supporters, but that’s not there any more.’’ Parling has 17 England caps under his name and three British and Irish Lions appearances on his CV.
Starting for the Lions in the final test in Australia – and winning in such style – would, for many, be the pinnacle.
British and Irish Lions' Alex Corbisiero, Owen Farrell and Stockton-born Geoff Parling celebrate victory following the British and Irish Lions' Third Test match at the ANZ Stadium, Sydney, Australia
But with Lancaster’s psyche matching up with his own, Parling won’t entertain the notion that the Lions is the be all and end all of the code.
He admitted: “I played for the Lions last summer and won a series in Australia, but is it the ultimate? I don’t think so. We have a home world cup to come and winning that is the ultimate.
“Being part of the Lions was fantastic, something to be really proud of, but I get frustrated talking about it because of where I am now – not even playing rugby and being injured.
“The World Cup is everything for England. The most important thing is to win a trophy. You think of the World Cup, but when you are involved in a tournament you just think of the next game and what is to come.
“It’s no good for the players to be thinking of the World Cup when they are going out to face Italy on the last weekend of the Six Nations.
“You cannot look too far ahead, it’s a bit of a cliché, but that’s all you can do.’’ He added: “I’ve watched the Six Nations and I’ve been so envious of the boys. I don’t think there’s another competition like it to play in. Going into the last weekend and three teams could have won it, that proves what a great event it is.
“England’s first game against France was a defeat and then we showed great character to get back into it and take it to the final game.’’ With his injury problems coming to an end, he has not played since October, there’s going to be a lot of frustration unleashed when he returns, with Leicester’s Heineken Cup quarter-final in Clermont on the agenda.
Watching from the stands is not for the former Ian Ramsey School student.
“I’m training now, probably a couple of weeks away from playing,’’ he said. “I’m a very, very frustrated watcher to say the least it.
“I watch with a little bit of envy probably, I’ve played a lot of rugby and it feels strange to not be part of it.
“I talk about things in the past tense rather than current as I’m not playing now. I had a great summer, part of the Lions squad and it’s all about coping with the ups and downs of being a professional sportsman.
“Things for me are certainly very different to how they were a few months ago, but it’s all part and parcel of it and it’s how you cope with it.’’ Parling moved to Leicester from the Falcons in 2009. He was captain at Kingston Park, players’ player of the year in 2006/7.
He was born on Teesside, went to Durham School and learned his top-flight rugby nous on Tyneside.
The North-East is engrained in him, from his accent to his rugby development.
“I was back at Kingston Park the other week when Leicester played there and I quite enjoyed it,’’ he admitted. “All my family got together for the game and my gran is about 130!
“I’ve loads of affection for the North-East, it’s where I grew up. When I’ve been home this time I’ve drove up the A1 past the Angel of the North and I know it’s a good place.
“The Falcons aren’t having the best of seasons, but the North-East needs a successful Premiership rugby team. When I was growing up, my dad used to take me to West Hartlepool to watch them playing all the big names.
“I know this is a big football area, but I don’t really buy into that idea that football is everything.
“Look right across the region and how many rugby teams there are across Durham, Northumberland, Teesside, Cumbria, North Yorkshire.
“A lot of it is about profile and when I was at Newcastle we would play in front of big crowds on a Friday night, but then go and lose – it’s about the product on the pitch which is the most important thing.’’ He added: “Consistency is key. I was chuffed when they got back into the Premiership for this season and I hope they do well and go from strength to strength.
“Dean Richards is the right man for the club, he will help them progress and gradually move up into contention again.
“It’s a long-term job for him and the support is strong for the club. Signing players can be tough here, as a foreigner you have heard about London, but Newcastle? I thought they did well when I was there and signed the Kiwis who made a big impact.
“When you are top of the league then it’s easier and players want to sign for you.
“Dean is a figurehead if you like, but there’s more to the game than a big name. We had Jonny (Wilkinson), the best in the world, and Rob (Andrew) and we were so inconsistent as a team. We would have 10,000 people watching us lose.
“That’s the most important thing – create a consistent, winning team.’’ To get involved as a volunteer visit joininuk.org for more information.