The last time Geoff Parling started a game of rugby with an England shirt on his back, he found himself on the painful end of a virtuoso performance from the All Black strike runner Hosea Gear and thanking the good Lord that the blame was unlikely to be laid at his door. "He was quite something that day, wasn't he?" the Leicester lock said yesterday, recalling Gear's astonishing three-try assault on behalf of the New Zealand Maori in Napier a little over a year and a half ago. "Happily, I wasn't on his wing. Or anywhere near it, which was even better."
Not that Parling left New Zealand entirely unscathed. "I'd had this niggling neck injury for a while and aggravated it during that match," he recalled. "It was decided then that I needed surgery, so that was it for a while. Then, two minutes into my first game back, I messed up the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee and missed the rest of the season."
At which point, he was left wondering whether the years of hard yakka in every England age-group side between Under-16s and Under-21s would ever bear the fruit he most desired. He was also left feeling just a little daft.
The second injury was his fault and his alone. "We were playing Harlequins and I ran straight into Chris Robshaw when I really didn't have to go anywhere near him," he said. "We'd already been awarded a penalty, so there was no point me taking another contact. But I took it anyway and paid the price."
How times have changed. Robshaw is now England captain – an unbeaten England captain, as things stand – and Parling is the team's new line-out strategist. He will make his first international start against Wales at Twickenham tomorrow after winning a couple of caps off the bench, the first against Scotland in Edinburgh and the second against the Azzurri in Rome. What is more, he is in the team on merit. Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, had to drop the long-serving Tom Palmer to create room for the man from Stockton-on-Tees.
"Geoff has worked so hard for this opportunity," said Lancaster, who places the work ethic very high in his list of virtues. "He's 28 now, so it hasn't come quickly or easily, but his understanding of the mechanics of the line-out and how to deliver the right kind of ball under pressure makes him very important to us. There's more to his game than the line-out, though. He runs very good lines, for example. If a lot of what he does isn't flash, it's no less vital for that."
Much the same was said of Steve Borthwick during his time as England captain under the management of Martin Johnson – at least, it was said by those who recognised and appreciated the things Borthwick brought to the mix. Technical expertise, analytical precision, an intense seriousness of approach, the highest possible level of professionalism and an indefatigable belief in the value of honest endeavour... Parling's predecessor had all these advantages in spades. And how was he treated by the Johnson regime when push came to shove? Like dirt. There's gratitude for you.
Given the more enlightened brand of personnel relations introduced by Lancaster, it is highly unlikely that Parling will ever be thrown out without a chance to prove his worth. However, the newcomer remains acutely aware of the fickle nature of rugby at Test level.
"I'm delighted to be given this start," he said. "When I came off the bench at Murrayfield in the first Six Nations game it meant so much to my family – especially my father, who played most of his rugby for Stockton fifths and is incredibly proud of the fact that I've made a career out of it. But it's also true to say that this has opened up for me because people like Louis Deacon and Courtney Lawes have been injured. I'm not the sort to get carried away with things, so I'll keep telling myself how I've arrived here. It will remind me of the importance of making the most of this while I have the chance."
Parling has always been a bright forward: not always a contradiction in terms, whatever rugby's myths and legends might say. He broke into Newcastle's senior side seven seasons ago, featuring on the blind side of the scrum as well as in the boilerhouse, and marked his time at Kingston Park – during which he operated alongside the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Mathew Tait and Phil Dowson, along with a number of top-notch overseas signings – with a well-earned player of the year award. Then it was off to Leicester. He does not tiptoe around his reasons for heading south. He wanted to better himself, pure and simple.
"If Newcastle had been up there challenging for trophies and I'd felt I was making the most of my time as a professional player, I'd probably have stayed," he said. "But it wasn't like that, unfortunately. It wasn't that we had a weak squad, but somehow it never clicked. At Leicester, it's a different world, the main difference being the emphasis on detail. They go into every little thing there: if you don't get to a ruck on this side of the field, they'll show you how it resulted in a try for the opposition on the other side. I've learned a hell of a lot."
That much is evident. Parling may be a Test rookie and he may be the last player on earth to cramp the style of a wing as good as Hosea Gear when he is on a hot streak, but he knows what's what at the line-out and that alone could be enough to worry Wales at Twickenham tomorrow.
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