Geoff Parling is going through second-row partners the way Elizabeth Taylor went through husbands: Mouritz Botha, the naturalised South African who could stare a herd of wildebeest into submission; followed by Tom Palmer, pretty much the polar opposite with his soft smile and diffident air; followed by the still mysterious Joe Launchbury, who makes his first England start this afternoon when the Springboks come knocking on Twickenham’s door with a view to smashing it off its hinges in time-honoured fashion.
Ten caps into his international career, the man who runs the red-rose line-out must be wondering about the effect he has on people.
“Joe? If you ask me, he’s a blind-side flanker,” Parling says, a deadly serious expression on his face. He does not stay serious for long. “Actually,” he continues, laughing out loud, “I say that about all the second-row prospects with their sights set on an England place. He has a big future ahead of him as lock – that much is obvious - but you have to look after yourself in this game.”
Since breaking into the side for last season’s Six Nations match with Wales – he had previously made appearances off the bench in Edinburgh and Rome – the 29-year-old Teesider has become one of the few fixed points in an ever-changing England pack and is one of the players on whom Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, bestows the word “senior”. Whenever there is a meeting of minds on matters of tactics and strategy, he is always there in the inner sanctum with the captain Chris Robshaw, the outside-half Toby Flood and a select handful of others. This week, they included the recalled flanker Tom Wood, the defence leader Brad Barritt, the influential full-back Alex Goode and the two scrum-halves in the match-day squad, Ben Youngs and Danny Care.
Is this not a heavy load? After all, he has 10 caps to his name, not 50: Martin Johnson, who knew a thing or two about life in the boilerhouse of the scrum, had more than twice as many caps in his kitbag before he took on the role of Red-Rose Lock Superior. “A burden? Not at all,” Parling replies. “I enjoy responsibility – I like to think I thrive on it. We all want to make whatever contribution we can and if I’m asked to run the line-out, I’m happy to do it. I don’t make a big issue of it, mind you. I’ll speak up when I think there’s something worth saying, but I don’t talk for the sake of it.”
There is a comparison to be made in this regard between Parling and the former England captain Steve Borthwick, a similarly intelligent operator equally unobsessed with the sound of his own voice – which was perhaps as well, given that even on a good day he sounded like Eeyore. The parallels do not end there. Like his predecessor in the engine room, the Leicester player is a set-piece artist, has high tackle and clear-out counts and can happily last a full game, in stark contrast to the fast-developing breed of 50-minute specialists.
If he sees the funny side of things far more readily – Borthwick was not entirely without a sense of humour during his England career, contrary to popular belief, but there were times when he appeared to believe that the most hilarious thing in the world was a dummy line-out call – he is every bit as serious about his work. That seriousness will be an essential part of the England package today, with Launchbury looking for support and guidance in what promises to be a fearsome battle with the punishingly competitive Juandre Kruger and the new Springbok bruiser Eben Etzebeth, a youngster who stands squarely in the take-no-prisoners tradition so revered by South African rugby folk.
“I’m the one with the caps behind me, so it’s up to me to offer whatever help is needed,” Parling says. “I’m hardly what you’d call an experienced international, but Joe has no experience at all in terms of starting a Test. He’s come through very fast: I’m wracking my brains here, but I don’t think I’ve ever played against him at club level. He’s 21. When I was his age, and coaches told me I was on the bench because they wanted to go with the experienced guy at the start, I’d think: ‘Bollocks. What does experience have to do with anything?’ Eight years on, I understand that it does count for something. If you draw on it wisely, you can make a difference.”
Like many of his colleagues, Parling learnt plenty from last summer’s three-Test trip to South Africa – a series that went the Springboks’ way on the strength of decisive 20-minute spells in Durban, just after the interval, and Johannesburg, just after kick-off. But like all good Leicester men, he prefers not to over-dramatise things.
“In the end,” he remarks, “we allowed the Boks to play the game they wanted to play and suffered for it. In other parts of those matches, and in the whole of the last Test in Port Elizabeth, we didn’t make that mistake and were far more competitive as a result. South Africa are a very good side, but they’re only as good as they’re allowed to be. Same as everyone else.”
So what was the story last week, when England went down by half a dozen points to the Wallabies amid considerable controversy about Robshaw’s rejection of penalty opportunities in favour of try-hunting kicks to the corners? Parling being a significant “voice” in the side, he was in the thick of the decision-making. The light he shines on events is illuminating.
“The first thing to say is that there are all sorts of decisions being made all the time,” he points out. “I talk to Toby (Flood) a lot during a game about things I think might be on for us from set-piece play. Then there are guys like Danny (Care) who have the ball their hands, spot a possibility and go for it. It’s not a case of everything coming down on the captain. And you have to remember that if you stand there having a conference, you send out the wrong message to the opposition. If they think you’re in two minds, they take strength from it.
“Some of the comment about last week’s game has been bollocks” – clearly, he is not averse to the b-word – “and some of it has been nearer the mark. Yes, maybe we should have made a different call at a certain stage of the contest, but we went for the corners because we genuinely felt the Wallabies were cracking and when you actually look at what happened, we had two drives pulled down and had every chance of winning a penalty try off the third drive. As it turned out, we worked our way over the line but couldn’t ground the ball. It happens.”
Parling is not a great one for making excuses or putting a shine on the smelly stuff. “The last thing I want is for this team to be known as plucky losers, a side who did well but came up short,” he says. But equally, he takes pride in a 100 per cent line-out return in the opening autumn fixture with Fiji and another perfect three-figure success against the Wallabies, one of world’s rugby’s smartest acts in this area of the game. Whatever else he may accomplishing at the moment – and in his quietly effective way he is one of the side’s higher achievers – he is completely on top of his principal task.
“There is more to the line-out than many people realise,” he says. “On the day after a game, when my body is recovering from what amounts to a car crash, I spend a lot of time analysing what’s gone on and thinking ahead to the next contest. But the line-out is quite complex enough without me over-complicating things to a ridiculous degree, so I make it my business to ensure the process is as straightforward as possible. I’m saying this as politely as possible, but let’s face it: you don’t want to give your average prop too much to think about, do you?”
Could he possibily be referring to the formidable Dan Cole, his clubmate at Welford Road and a fellow automatic pick in the England side? This is dangerous ground. Cole may not look terribly cerebral as he galumphs his way around the field with blood trickling slowly through the humps and hollows of his cauliflower ear, but he reads the writings of Noam Chomsky for light relief and will happily engage in political debate from dawn to dusk.
After a few seconds of careful thought, Parling concedes the point. “Well, maybe Dan is an exception,” he admits, aware of the need for self-preservation. As he had said a few minutes earlier, a man needs to look after himself in this game.
Geoff Parling: Factfile
Height 6ft 6in
Weight 17st 13lb
Education Ian Ramsey School, Durham School, Newcastle University
Premiership clubs Newcastle, Leicester
Representative honours England Under-16s, Under-18s, Under-19s, Under-21s, Saxons
International debut v Scotland, Murrayfield, February 2012
First international start v Wales, Twickenham, February 2012
Test record P10, W5, D1, L4.Reuse content