‘Australian players are realising they can live with these Kiwis’


When I tune in for a virtual meeting with Geoff Parling, a 2001 British and Irish Lions tracksuit is framed on the back wall. Parling zooms in immediately, gimlet-eyed: “What a top that is!”

It is nothing new. Australia’s newly-appointed assistant coach is making a living out of noticing things others miss or ignore. He sees the background and contextual details then assesses the bigger picture. It is a rare gift in the modern world and stems from his playing days.

“I felt I was not a very good athlete so I compensated by on-field coaching. I realised very early on that was going to be my job, learning the game, picking up trends quickly and understanding what makes systems and other people tick.”

Geoff Parling was a Test British and Irish Lion on the 2013 trip to Australia and will now coach the Wallabies against the tourists a dozen years on (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It was Parling’s ability to analyse in real time, which made him the most dependable lineout forward in England since Ben Kay at the 2003 World Cup. Parling was already used to deciphering and feeding information to others as a captain of professional lineouts – from the English Premiership with Leicester Tigers, through to the national side, all the way to Warren Gatland’s 2013 Lions.

In Australia, he was one of only two English members of a Wales-dominated pack. If Gatland tipped his selectorial hat to an English tight forward of that era, he had to be bloody good. A 2017 stint as player-coach with the Munakata Sanix Blues in Japan, and a six-month playing contract at the Melbourne Rebels one year later led seamlessly into a coaching role in Victoria.

With two New Zealanders [Joe Schmidt and Mike Cron] already in place, he addition of an Englishman to the new Wallaby coaching staff may seem a luxury. Appearances can be deceptive.

I feel privileged to have a job to go to, but a lot of the players and performance staff don’t. They are edgy.

“When I spoke to Joe [Schmidt], he was keen to emphasise ‘Australian’ also meant ‘local’ – and I am local. I am now officially half Australian – I am a dual passport holder and a full Australian citizen.

“I am still that ‘local’ coach here in Melbourne, they were looking to develop some local coaching talent and I’ve now been coaching in Super Rugby for six seasons.

“A lot of the Super Rugby coaches will have the urge to move across to Europe as their careers develop, but that background is already part of my DNA. I don’t need to go anywhere to see the other side of the world.

“My wife and family are very settled here; only the other day it dawned on me my youngest, who was only three months old when we came out here, is now seven! It’s sheer madness when you think about it.”

The job offer duly arrived, releasing pressure like steam from a valve. That crushing strain is still being felt by the Rebels organisation Parling leaves behind. The unspoken consensus is Rugby Australia wants to reduce to four teams from five. Unless the private equity-backed business consortium fronted by ex-Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford can come up with a clear business plan, the Rebels may be gone for good. The time-fuse is burning low.

“I can’t lie, it’s been a very nervous period,” says Parling. “It still is an anxious time for a lot of my friends and colleagues. I feel privileged to have a job to go to, but a lot of the players and performance staff don’t. They are edgy. Even if they move to Queensland, it’s not like a walk down the road, it’s a 20-hour drive, and that means a lot of uprooting.

“There have been more distractions this season than I’ve ever experienced. Players are often meeting with their agents on game days to discuss their options, so it’s very far from ideal.”

Darby Lancaster
Parling’s Rebels face an uncertain future beyond the end of the Super Rugby Pacific campaign (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Despite the uncertainty and power wrangle, franchises Down Under have fared well against their rivals from across the Tasman.

“Now the players are beginning to realise they can live with these Kiwi guys having beaten them a few times, and hopefully that self-belief will translate to the international stage,” Parling continues.

“I always remember an Australian bloke who I played with for the Barbarians when there were a lot a Crusaders in the same team. It was the first time he saw up close and personal they were just ordinary human beings rather than the mythic supermen they were bigged up to be in Super Rugby.

“I would love it if we can finish my time at the Rebels with not only a playoff appearance, but some wins during the finals process.”

The subliminal hint in the Barbarians comment is a thread which leads to some other conclusions, in particular the value of overseas experience in broadening the rugby mind and applying a new sense of perspective.

Recently Hunter Paisami had an offer to move to Devon but fortunately he decided to stay in Aussie, which is great news for us.

“A high proportion of Australian players really benefit from experiencing other ways of living and playing the game. When [ex-Rebels second row and lineout captain] Matt Philip left for Pau in France for just one season, he returned looking at the same problems in a different way.

“Exeter Chiefs in southwest England have had plenty Australian players. They are the focal point for sporting success in the region, and a hub for promising youngsters from Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset.

“The same backroom staff has been there for years, there is trustworthiness, and a strong legacy of honesty and hard work.

“Exeter didn’t invest in huge overseas stars to bring oven-ready success, they built steadily via marginal gains. But they did become a home from home to a lot of very good players from Australia who wanted a fresh start at a club who played the Australian way. You look at Exeter and they always seem to have the highest figures for ball-in-play time and building phases on attack.

“Nic White, Dean Mumm, Dave Dennis, Lachie Turner, Julian Salvi, Greg Holmes, Ollie Atkins, Solomone Kata and now Scott Sio – the list goes on and on. 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. Recently Hunter Paisami had an offer to move to Devon but fortunately he decided to stay in Aussie, which is great news for us.”

There is a powerful sense of unfinished business as conversation turns to Parling’s ambitions with the Wallabies, and next year’s Lions tour looming on the horizon. It is the second time the former lock has had a shot coaching at Test level.

The first was with Dave Rennie’s staff in mid-2020. Current Leicester boss Dan McKellar could not fill the national role until later that year, and Parling took on interim responsibility during the Rugby Championship. I helped as an analytical consultant, and the Australian lineout finished with an 89% own-ball retention rate in, the highest ratio for many years.

“There was a desire to fill the role until the end of the 2023 World Cup cycle even though I knew it wouldn’t happen,” Parling reflects. “Because it also occurred during the pandemic, there was no opportunity to share it with my family which was doubly frustrating. I’ve already booked their flights to Sydney for our first Test against Wales.

“I have a lot of time for ‘Faz’ [Lions head coach Andy Farrell]. If you asked me for a shortlist of coaches who appealed to my biases, he would be on it. The Lions represent an exciting opportunity, one that only spins around once every 12 years for Australia, and along with that comes a stronger demand to perform. I can feel it.”

Parling won the English Premiership with an Australian-infused Exeter Chiefs squad having previously claimed the title with Leicester Tigers. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The importance of a lineout coach’s role has only increased in the past few years, with upwards of 40% of all tries scored worldwide coming from that attacking platform. Parling highlights how the Crusaders won the 2022 Super Rugby title on the back of seven steals against the Blues throw. Play in the really big games always contracts closer to source.

Parling agrees there is still a big difference in the attitude towards the set-piece between the hemispheres.

“There is a difference in the method of training, and you cannot underestimate the impact of weather conditions – you just can’t. In the UK, you might have three whole months when you train set-piece and it’s pissing down. Over here, we very rarely experience games severely affected by weather.

“In the UK the lineout process unwinds more slowly, partly due to conditions and partly because the lineout is more tactical. There is more movement before the ball is thrown and more emphasis on unit training. Down south, there is more stress on individual skill-sets and less on collective cohesion; more off-the-top and less driven ball.

“Tight forwards in the UK love being tight forwards, the complexities and technical nuances. There is probably more interest in using your hookers as running athletes here, although that is changing with the likes of Leinster [with Dan Sheehan], Saracens [Theo Dan] and Northampton [Curtis Langdon].

“You look at the quality of [flanker] Josh van der Flier’s passes from the dummy maul, the width Leinster get off it is unreal. But in general, the quality of passing from the base by openside flankers in Super Rugby is better. You cannot overstate the importance of a good ‘ripper’ [number 7] punching the ball straight through the maul, or passing away from it to hit the nine out wide.

“The slickness of the decision-making there is key. There is also more attacking focus on the extreme edges of the lineout – over the top and straight into midfield, or drop throws down the 5m corridor at the front – because of a greater congestion in the backline.”

A few weeks ago, we might have become the first club outside the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika to field and entire starting Pasifika front eight!

At the Rebels, Parling coaches a pack of gifted physical athletes still learning the technical and tactical nuances of the game – elements Parling refers to as ‘the s****ers’. He has also been making do without a seasoned lineout caller to bring the set-piece together.

“There are some very good lineout athletes in Australia,” he says. “We lacked a bit of consistency after Dave Rennie was replaced by Eddie Jones, and you need that consistency of preparation and approach, and a focus on the fundamentals to succeed.

“But we do still have a stronger Pasifika base, more powerful and explosive athletes than in Europe. You might have a Bundee Aki in Ireland or a Manu Tuilagi in England, but in the pack I coach, of the top 16 forward choices, 13 of them are Pasifika.

“A few weeks ago, we might have become the first club outside the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika to field and entire starting Pasifika front eight! Our number eight Vaiolini Ekuasi told me at the start of the season, ‘I’ve never really done this lineout stuff before!’ So, in a lot these cases you are starting from scratch.

“If you look at other clubs, Liam Wright [at the Reds], Jed Holloway [at the Waratahs] and Nick Frost [at the Brumbies] have been calling lineouts for three years or more, but we do not have that depth of experience. All of those plus Darcy Swain are excellent lineout players, while Charlie Cale is another outstanding athlete who is not yet calling the shots.”

Encouraged, I push the name-checking a stage further by mentioning France-based colossus Will Skelton, anointed Jones’ skipper at the World Cup. How does a non-jumper fit into the overall lineout thinking?

“Joe’s got to pick him first! But Will is a great bloke and an outstanding player. Is he a lineout jumper? No. But the lineout starts on the ground – contact work, lifting, utilising that massive body at the maul.

Will Skelton was Eddie Jones’ choice of Australia captain at last year’s Rugby World Cup (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

“It’s a fantastic prospect, but quite different from the other second rows available. You’d need that extra option in the back row, like Tom Hooper at the World Cup.

“Three receiving options is your lineout baseline. You can manage with two if you are very, very smart, but the best teams have at least three.”

The talk finishes with a more general vision of rugby’s future, and more evidence Parling’s rugby cannot confine itself to technicalities.

“I would have mid-season combine, similar to the NFL or AFL here, where every club sends their fastest or strongest athlete to be tested against each other at Twickenham at one of those big double-headers. The 100-yard dash, bench press, whatever – it just gets kids excited and talking about the game.

“On the day of the AFL grand final they have a ‘longest kick’ competition where a player from every club test themselves to kick it over the black dot from the longest possible range. It’s a day out for the family, three hours solid. I’m a traditionalist but we have got do things differently now.”

Amen to that. If all of Australian rugby thinking is as progressive as Parling’s, the Wallabies will be back on their feet, and swinging knockout punches in no time at all.





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