Dan Parks and the unsolved questions of expat rugby
Scotland's Dan Parks prepares to take a shot at goal. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
The contradictions of modern rugby stand evident in the career of Dan Parks, the duality never better expressed than in the jealous mixture of pride and persecution with which Scottish crowds enveloped him.
In the age of the professional rugby player, his Australian upbringing gave him the mark of the mercenary in the Scottish team. A bloke not quite good enough to make it back home, but who through a technicality, could find international honours elsewhere.
His grandmother’s birth in Ayrshire offered the lucrative loophole to the northern hemisphere purse.
He was one of two Australians in the team for much of the past decade with Nathan Hines, the second row who was born on the Wagga Wagga fault line, where the rugbies and AFL collide.
The other Six Nations teams of this period each contained a handful of such expats, and even though many of them carried the conviction of the truest of converts, they were all tied, fairly or otherwise, to the lowest common denominator of cynical opportunism.
But to dismiss Parks in this way seems to dismiss something far greater from rugby. The ability to take your boots around the world and find a game for yourself.
In their own time great players like Mark Loane, Martin Johnson and Des Connor all did much the same, at various points in their career. At a much lower level the trade is in better health with many Australian club teams having hosted a Canadian, Pom or Kiwi at one time or another.
Though Parks is more visible because of his selection in a national team he is currently joined in his wanderings by Brock James, the Clermont Auvergne fly-half who also learnt his rugby in Sydney. James could have hung around the verge of Super Rugby selection back home but decided to enjoy the benefits of rugby and take his life to France where he has prospered.
Though rarely covered by the Australian press, James is highly regarded in the French and British press and is certainly no weak link among his many international team mates. Yet where would most pundits rank James among the leading Australian fly-halves of the last ten years?
I’d venture that as a pure No. 10 he is streets ahead of Matt Giteau, but then I am in the minority of Australians who have seen James play.
Perhaps both Parks and James are better adapted to the northern hemisphere game. If so, isn’t that a wonderful expression of the game’s ability to be played in varying styles around the world, and a great reason for more players to follow the game to where they best fit?
Parks also suffered the modern rugby player’s affliction of public misbehaviour when, in 2009, he was caught drink driving and lost both his license and his place in the Scotland team.
His response was dramatic. Working hard to regain his team’s faith, Parks won three man-of-the-match awards in the following year’s Six Nations competition; a Wally Lewis-like record for those who remember the King’s ability to win the same award come State of Origin.
If Parks ever needed evidence of his true intentions, it could be found in his 2010.
The other contradiction in Parks is one of style. Being Australian, a New South Welshman nonetheless, he might be expected to play the running game that the game’s modern entertainment focus demands. And it is entertainment that Scotland’s crowds so desperately need, having not seen tries scored by the home team on home soil with any regularity in recent years.
Instead he provides the other Australian style of play. What might be called John Connolly’s Queensland style, where a fly-half’s first job was to kick and to kick well. Think of the great pragmatists Michael Lynagh and Elton Flatley. For most of his career Parks did just this, and played to Scotland’s strengths of enthusiasm, belligerence, and fat blokes in the mud.
Sadly his kicking game led to a fatal charge-down last Saturday. It was to be the breaking point in his international career.
Scotland now need to embrace running rugby. They have in David Denton, Ross Rennie, Alasdair Strokosch and Alistair Kellock the type of heavy running and tackling forwards that can win their fair share of quick possession, but without a fly-half who can take advantage of this, Scotland will not progress far up the international ladder.
Parks, though he had limitations, was a player who seemed to relish the tide and tussle of the game, and his involvement in it. Watching him play, I always felt that he was a man aware of the value of the opportunities afforded him, and keen to demonstrate his appreciation for them.
Mercenary or Corinthian? Bad boy or prefect? Showman or grafter? Aussie or Scot?
His departure from the game leaves me valuing the contribution of self-made expats in international teams much more than I had previously. It also leaves me feeling that the derision often directed at those who follow opportunities overseas is more cut-and-paste thinking than sober, thoughtful analysis.