Geoff Parling: I walk the line
When Geoff Parling jumps, England listen. Hugh Godwin talks to one of the few undroppables in Stuart Lancester's team about his vital job in charge of the line-out
Banish from your mind the picture of Twickenham as a battleground; forget the TV trails of chain-mailed armies steaming over the horizon. Imagine instead the green pitch on Saturday, as England and Scotland play their annual grudge match, as a conference room with a white board here, coffee and biscuits there.
"Every time the ball goes off the field, me and the fly-half will meet straight away and speak about what we want to do," says Geoff Parling, England's leader of the line-out. "It's only a split-second meeting but then we get the call to the rest of the lads and make sure they're all happy. There's probably more in my head than some people think. You may be blowing out of your backside from a series of scrums. Making those calls is the role. If you're wound up about something you have to put it to one side."
Not all the 82,000 Calcutta Cup crowd next Saturday will follow every nuance of the line-out. The call and the check-out (a Plan B if the opposition have rumbled you), the dummy and the jump, the bullet throw or the loop, may be beyond the winers and diners in the £750-a-pop hospitality seats.
But only the truly sozzled will fail to notice if England come up with a last-minute, match-winning steal, as Parling did for Leicester against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup only last weekend, and also in the extraordinary Premiership final at Twickenham in 2010, when he picked the pocket of Saracens' Schalk Brits.
One such brave decision and brilliantly timed jump could be the difference between a first Grand Slam for England since 2003 and a place among the also-rans. "Those are the pressure situations," says Parling, "when you've got to back yourself and back those around you."
Every team need a line-out leader, and they are not the bulging-eyed locks of the Martin Johnson archetype. If anything their eyes will be slightly bloodshot from staring at one too many video replays. Parling's beard parts to reveal a smile; he admits he can overthink things. Even over a post-match pint in the pub he is itching to get home and run through a recorded match.
"Scotland, to be fair, in the first game of a Six Nations with new coaches, there's not too much to look at there," says Parling. Yeah, right. He will certainly have pored over digital clips of Scottish hookers and jumpers, led by the colossal Jim Hamilton and the blond Richie Gray. There is, nevertheless, a truth there when Parling says: "The main focus has got to be on yourselves really. I just keep chipping away at it." He is happy to be called a line-out nause – "That's a rugby term, I'm not so happy with 'nerd' " – and is bracketed by England's forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, with former internationals Steve Borthwick and Ben Kay among the best of that rarefied bunch of studious beanpoles.
"The package with Geoff is more than just the line-out," Rowntree says. "He's developing into a very good leader and always at the end of a game you'll see him involved, not hanging on to the pace of it. But his favourite thing is the line-out, and I've learnt a lot off him. It helps when you're bringing on someone new [at hooker] like Tom Youngs. During a massive game against South Africa [last November], when our line-out was under extreme pressure, Geoff looked after him."
Rowntree and Parling speak with a similar accent: both were born in Stockton-on-Tees and honed by Leicester Tigers. But whereas Rowntree was capped at 22, Parling had to be patient. He was capped in all the England age- groups but did not make the senior side in six years spent with the Newcastle Falcons before he joined the Tigers in 2009. He impressed Rowntree in the midweek England team on tour in Australia in 2010, before neck and knee injuries stalled him further.
Finally he made his Test debut as a substitute in the 13-6 win in Scotland at the start of last year's Six Nations. Another appearance off the bench was followed by starts in England's 10 remaining matches of 2012.
Though it is not quite certain whether Owen Farrell or Toby Flood will be the fly-half this week – Manu Tuilagi's injury may open the door to Billy Twelvetrees rather than Jonathan Joseph as a centre – at 29 Parling is arguably one of the first two names on England's teamsheet, alongside the tighthead prop Dan Cole. The younger second-rows Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are no line-out technicians, while Tom Palmer is injured and possibly usurped by Parling, who will lock the right side of the scrum.
"Growing up, as well as just playing a sport – and not just rugby – I'd always like to think about it and how I could do it better," says Parling. "Why was somebody doing what they were doing, why were they acting the way they were? I remember a sports day, doing the hurdles. This is a bit random. But I noticed the others would jump the hurdle and then take loads of steps before jumping the next hurdle.
"So I went to study people doing the hurdles at the Olympics, they'd jump the hurdle, take three steps and jump again – every time. So even though the other guys were much quicker than me over the flat, because they didn't know fully how to do it, I ended up beating them."
This six-foot six-incher keeps his feet on the ground. He does not tweet, but his fans use the hashtag "TeamParling" with warm reverence.
He broke off from the players at a service station after Leicester's draw with the Ospreys to thank Tigers supporters for making the trip to Swansea. Not wanting to take the credit as man of the match against Gloucester this season, Parling handed the champagne prize to someone in the crowd instead. Do not, however, confuse this likeable demeanour with deference. Parling admires Australia's 116-cap Nathan Sharpe for his magnificent longevity, saying: "You don't want to be a guy who comes in and gets a handful of caps. I want to be one of those guys that keeps doing it.
"Scotland are in a similar position to how we were last year: interim coach and set-up, not much to lose. We're the team with the favourites' tag, the pressure's on us now to show that New Zealand win [in December] wasn't a one-off.
"The way everyone went on about it showed how good the All Blacks were and are. I'd much rather be the team that's expected to win than the team that has no pressure."
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