Parks quits before being pushed
Scotland search for new No 10 while a glittering England future opens up for Ben Morgan
Just as England's latest contender for a long and productive run in the red-rose back row was revelling in his first taste of international rugby – "Something I'll remember and treasure for the rest of my life," said a star-struck Ben Morgan yesterday, reminiscing about the dozen minutes or so he spent on the pitch at Murrayfield last weekend – one of the Scots who started that game was putting his Test career firmly behind him. Dan Parks, never the most popular outside-half north of the border but occasionally the most effective, will not wear the blue shirt again.
The 31-year-old exiled Australian said in a prepared statement that he had considered retiring from the international game following last autumn's World Cup, but decided to declare himself available for Six Nations duty because England were the opening-round opponents and he felt there was an element of "unfinished business" following Scotland's bitterly frustrating defeat by the ancient enemy during the global gathering in New Zealand. However, his performance in Edinburgh four days ago was well below par and it seemed yesterday that he had been given an opportunity to bow out while the choice was still his to make.
This suspicion was reinforced by Andy Robinson's remarks on the subject. "It's never an easy decision to make, but I think Dan has made the right one," said the coach, who did not include Parks in his early squads but finally responded to the player's "determination, hard work, skill and competitive spirit". Robinson will now turn to a younger generation of No 10s charged with the task of stamping some authority on Scotland's most obvious problem position. Ruaridh Jackson, Greig Laidlaw and Duncan Weir are the front-runners in the immediate term.
Parks, who scored 266 points in 67 international appearances over eight years and dropped more goals than anyone in the Scottish annals, was not obviously cut from Wallaby cloth: no one ever mistook him for Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh or Stephen Larkham. Yet on a good day, he brought a pinpoint tactical kicking game to the table: indeed, more than one England coach considered him a serious threat to the nation's Calcutta Cup ambitions. Certainly, the man from Sydney's upper north shore area was valued by his colleagues.
"We all had the same reaction when Dan announced his retirement: stunned silence and emotion," said the scrum-half and former captain Mike Blair. "In 2010 he came back from the wilderness to win man-of-the-match awards against Wales, Italy, Ireland, South Africa and Argentina. That showed his resilience and competitiveness."
Yesterday was a very different day for the 22-year-old Morgan, who can see a whole new world unfolding before him. Fast-tracked into Stuart Lancaster's new-look Six Nations squad after declaring his international allegiance to England rather than Wales – born in Gloucestershire, he was given his professional break by the Llanelli-based Scarlets – he has an even-money chance of replacing Phil Dowson in the middle of the back row for this weekend's arm-wrestle with Italy in Rome.
It was Lancaster, the caretaker coach of the national side, who first approached Morgan with a view to sticking a white shirt on his back. It happened eight months ago, ahead of a Churchill Cup tournament in which Lancaster was running the second-string Saxons. "That was an awkward time for me because I'd just started on a development contract in Wales, and while it blew me away it also came completely out of the blue," admitted Morgan, who knocked back the invitation.
"I had so many people telling me what I should and shouldn't be doing that I couldn't think for myself. The easiest thing for me was to say I needed more time. As soon as everyone shut up and let me think for myself, it was really clear. It was about wanting to play for my country. It didn't matter about Wales, because I'm not Welsh."
When Morgan first landed with a considerable splat on hallowed Llanelli turf, following spells with such glamorous clubs as Dursley, Cinderford and Merthyr Tydfil, he was the best part of 21 stone and had a reputation for self-inflicted pratfalls. "I once missed a county trial for Gloucestershire because I fell off a microscooter on the morning of the match and chipped a bone in my hip," he recalled. "It took two years of hard effort at Scarlets to get myself fit because I was really quite big, but they were wonderful in taking a chance on me. I'd been working on a building site and eating whatever I wanted, so I had no idea what was good for me. That was when I found myself dragging a sledge around the stadium and wearing a snorkel on the running machine. In the end, it's about not giving up."
England, very much aware of the physical threat posed by the Azzurri this weekend, trained hard yesterday in the unfamiliar surroundings of the London Soccerdome, near the O2 Arena in the capital's docklands. Charlie Hodgson, who scored the decisive try on his return to national colours last weekend, was not in a position to test his dodgy shoulder joint in full contact, but the Saracens outside-half is expected to retain the No 10 shirt in Rome. Another crocked individual, the Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson, was able to participate, despite a fractured bone in his left hand.
Lancaster released eight players back to their clubs for this weekend's round of Premiership matches, including Toby Flood, fresh back in the England training party after injury. The coach has, however, retained the Wasps half-back Joe Simpson in case of further problems with Dickson.
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