I am telling Geoff Parling about the recent floods in the Neath Valley in Wales.
Floodwaters have erupted from the old, abandoned mineshafts. They have cracked the surfaces of busy town centre roads and formed small tidal waves, swelling and surging in little whitecaps down the streets of the village of Skewen.
I can hear the incredulity in Geoff Parling’s response. He is surrounded by a background chorus of finches, whistlers and honeyeaters in the balmy 17 degrees of early morning Melbourne. It is a world apart. Not much hint there, of the catalogue of Old Testament plagues in the UK.
“I’ve just arrived at [Melbourne Rebels] training, we’re back into pre-season and everything’s good,” he says.
“I was supposed to come back to the UK for a couple of weddings last year but couldn’t travel because of COVID.”
So, Australia it is. We get into the rugby pretty swiftly after that. Geoff only retired as a player in 2018. Were there any doubts about taking on the job as Wallabies forwards assistant to Dave Rennie so early in his coaching career?
“I’d been on tour with the Rebels for ten weeks in 2020, and it was only a couple of weeks before the end of the Super Rugby AU season when I got a call from Dave Rennie.
“He told me that Dan McKellar had pulled out of the forwards role due to his commitments with the Brumbies. Even though I’d already been away from my family for so long and that would now be extended to nearly six months, I had no doubts. It was hard being away from them but I couldn’t pass on the opportunity. It was something I was very keen to get stuck in to.”
In reality, Parling’s playing and coaching careers have never been that far apart – they have run in parallel for many years. His interest in coaching and player development was stimulated from the earliest years under Nick Moore and Keith Bell at Stockton-on-Tees rugby club. One whitecap has swiftly overtaken the next down the middle of his rugby road.
“Even as a young player with Newcastle Falcons I helped out with coaching students at the university, and when I finished playing in the UK with Exeter Chiefs I was coaching down at Taunton in National League One. Wherever I have been, I have always coached. If I was injured, I would use the spare time to do my coaching badges.”
When he went to Japan as a player-coach with the Munakata Sanix Blues in 2017, Parling was already used to coaching, and feeding information to others as a captain of professional lineouts – from the English Premiership with Leicester Tigers, to the England national side, and all the way to the 2013 British and Irish Lions.
In Australia, he was one of only two English members of Warren Gatland’s Welsh-dominated pack, leading the Lions lineout in the second and third Tests. You knew you were good if, as an English tight forward of that era, you could persuade Gatty to select you.
“The job with Sanix in Japan was my first ‘coaching’ gig. Trust me – when it’s your first gig as a player-coach, you are in Japan and you can’t speak the same language as the players… then that’s a steep learning curve.
“It was a culture shock of the first order but I found myself enjoying the excitement, the newness of it all.
“It was the same with the offer from Dave Rennie, and the same with meeting all the new signings at the Rebels this season. If you take pride in your work, you look forward to every challenge. The nervous excitement is only natural if you really care about what you do.”
This openness to new experiences in foreign environments, and the unusually close alliance of playing and coaching attitudes, is why the river of Geoff Parling’s coaching career is moving on with the speed of a flood tide.
“I realised early on that I was not an outstanding athlete, so I looked for other ways to make my way forward. For me, that meant learning the game and understanding what makes systems and other people tick – not making the highlight reel by running over the top of someone.
“Some players will take a big interest in coaching and will be very receptive at picking things up from the very beginning. A long time ago, I started thinking about good things coaches had done, the drills I liked, or things I would do differently, making notes on a laptop.
“Of course, you can play your whole career where you just want to get out on the field and you don’t take any notice. It depends on what type of person you are.
“I was absolutely ready for the transition, and it feels like an age ago already.”
He clearly thrives on the independence and responsibility Rennie gives him in his own area of expertise.
“Dave Rennie let me go with whatever I wanted to do. I did lineout and maul, and I implemented a new system.
“Because of the pandemic, [scrum coach] Petrus du Plessis didn’t arrive until the day after the Brisbane Test, so I also looked after the scrum sessions in training, while he coached the front row boys on the technicalities over Zoom. That was certainly a unique experience in the COVID era. We all took care of contact work in attack, the carry and cleanout work.”
The bonuses of working and playing in both hemispheres are not lost on Parling.
“There is a definite advantage having played and coached professionally in both the north and south. There is a very different mindset and approach.
“In the UK, there are three months of the season when you can be better off not having the ball because of the weather conditions. You’re trying to play for pressure and force errors.
“The pressure built up by the scrum matters more for a northern hemisphere team. Every Premiership scrum would be used to sap the morale of the opposition and win penalties. Here, they will pick the scrums they want to attack, but generally they look to produce quality attacking ball.
“It is a bit looser and a bit wider. Even the stadiums are very different, and there is very little wind for example – Wellington excepted. The majority of stadia have very little impact on the game, unlike in the UK.”
Geoff went on explain how his stints at Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs shaped his outlook. At Welford Road, home of the Tigers, he wanted to build up his mental resilience as a player; at Exeter, he was looking for the community feeling that comes from a tight bond between the rugby club and its region.
“I went to Welford Road because I wanted to specialise in one particular position (second row), and because I craved the tough environment on offer.
“I thought my commitment to the Leicester club would last a lifetime, and if you’d told me a couple of years before I joined Exeter that I’d be leaving Welford Road, I would not have believed you. But I felt the time for a change was right in 2015, and I already had a connection to the Chiefs in the form of Thomas ‘the Tank’ Waldrom, who had made the move to Sandy Park.
“He told me Exeter worked very hard on the field and enjoyed themselves off it, which was something I felt I needed. It’s a great area to live in, without a top-flight soccer team to dilute support for the rugby team.
“The Chiefs are the main focal point of sporting success in the region, and they attract good young players from all over the south-west. Exeter has become like a regional hub for ambitious youngsters in Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset. The geographical area was ready, and primed for the Exeter Chiefs to succeed with their development plans.
“The other really positive feature of the club is its stability. The same backroom staff have been there for years, the same people act as guarantors on the board. The director of rugby [Rob Baxter] captained the club, and his dad and his brother were all part of it too.
“I’m not sure it’s a formula which can be duplicated elsewhere, or even ought to be copied. It’s a pretty unique situation really.
“Exeter didn’t invest in the highest-profile overseas stars to try and bring success immediately, they made incremental improvements. They did become a home-from-home to a lot of very good players from Australia – Nic White, Dave Dennis and Greg Holmes among them.
“I think they liked the kind of game Exeter were trying to play, and once word got around it was an easy decision for players to go there.”
Coronavirus also made the experience of the 2020 international season unique.
“Because the boys were in a quarantine bubble, the usual touring aspects were absent, but it did help Dave Rennie forge connections between players because they were on top of each other all of the time – and Dave is very big on the cultural aspect.”
The developments in Geoff Parling’s area of expertise took time as he introduced new systems to the lineout.
“I’m a miserable Northerner so I’m never satisfied. I felt it was only at the end of the tournament [in the final Tri Nations game against Argentina] that we began to come together, lineout-wise. But there were certainly a couple of games where the All Blacks put us under some pressure prior to that.”
Parling was happy with the way in which his lineout captain at the Rebels, Matt Philip, had come on steadily throughout the season. At the beginning of 2020, Philip was probably ranked no higher than fourth among Australian locks, behind all of Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda and Adam Coleman.
“Before the start of 2020, Matt hadn’t called a lineout in Super Rugby, so I was happy with the way that he developed. He was one of the lineout leaders, and it’s key to driving things forward with those guys and getting them to see and explain the whys and wherefores of what we are doing – then they really take on the leadership role.
“His recall to the Wallabies meant a huge amount to Matt. As a person, he’s a good bloke with good character, so I was happy for him on that score. But his consistency of performance on the field backed that up and underpinned it, and that was outstanding.”
With Philip as his lineout captain, Parling built the most solid lineout in Super Rugby AU, the Rebels finishing five per cent above the traditional lineout front-runners the Brumbies on own-ball retention during the 2020 season.
By the end of the Tri Nations, his Wallabies had also moved within one percentage point of the magic 90 per cent retention figure.
Matt Philip is also one of the players built along the modern requirements for the second-row position.
“The lineout is still very important in the modern game. There are probably two lineouts for every scrum put down now. I like the psychological factor a solid lineout adds to a team – the confidence it adds to your side, or takes away from the opposition.
“A good defensive lineout has the power to change an opponent’s entire gameplan. It has a real impact when they can see you are solid and reliable there.
“Second-row selection depends on the overall team needs and philosophy. Ten, or even five years ago, everyone in the back five forwards had to be a potential jumper – but that’s all changed now.
“Now you have sides who are quite happy to play two number sevens together in the back row. Others, like Saracens, will pick three number eights. They had two non-jumpers in Will Skelton and Billy Vunipola, so they would build the lineout around the remaining three players at five, six and seven.
“A traditional French side might have its primary callers and receivers all in the back row, not the second row.”
Geoff pauses as he hears the call to arms on the Rebels’ training field, and for a moment those Australian birds come back into earshot again. Soon enough, the catastrophic impact of the floods rushing headlong down the main streets of Skewen village will return to the forefront of my mind.
It is truly a time for all seasons, rolled into one. Somehow, I am left with the feeling that Geoff Parling could be just the man to cope with them all, as Dave Rennie’s forwards coach in the passage towards World Cup 2023.