Oh Parksy, My Parksy!

Ten players were either released by Connacht or retired through injury at the end of this season. Within these ten there were of course a few surprises; a number of players who had failed to make the grade in the past ran out of time, while players who were coming towards the twilight of their career were pushed out perhaps a season or two earlier than expected. As I said last week it seems in retrospect that Connacht last year were an aging squad, or at least in danger of going that way, so I have to commend Lam in his steely determination to not allow emotion to get the better of him and the club. A small province like Connacht cannot allow itself to be paying wages to players who aren’t playing or who won’t or can’t make the required grade.

Gavin Duffy perhaps justifiably got the most press in this event. As a verifiable Connacht legend and one of Lam’s trio of captains it was surprising that he was let go. In all the hubbub about changing football codes, one of the details that has gotten lost is that Dan Parks was let go – this seemed to be greeted with a bit of a ‘yeah, and?’ attitude.

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In the past week or two I’ve realized that this was a bit wrongheaded. Its true that sometimes you don’t know what you have until its gone. I wanted to write a bit of a dedication to Parksy’s time in Galway, so here it is.

I don’t know about you but I remember where I was when I heard Parks had officially been signed. That sounds a bit daft now but at the time it was actually extraordinary to think that a quality international player (recently retired after an ‘incident’ in Murrayfield, but still) would be rocking up to the Sportsground. Parks is the eighth highest points scorer in the Heineken cup and the first player to hit 1500 points in the Celtic League. There had been a thread about this rumour for several weeks or even months on the Connacht Clan forum prior to that but it still just seemed like idle speculation.

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The previous year Elwood had brought together a number of players from his successful Ireland u-20s team in an attempt to inject Connacht with some young blood and I guess capture lightening in a bottle for the second time. This didn’t really work out and in retrospect its not hard to see why: very few u-20s actually make the grade, although these players were in the right in-between age group where it wasn’t totally clear whether they could actually make it or not. Niall O’Connor had 50 caps for Ulster before coming to Galway, and went back North a year early when they asked (I assume Ulster asked?). Its not like he wasn’t particularly rated, it just turned out he didn’t match up to expectations.

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But this was going to be different. This was going to be Connacht’s Biggest Ever Signing.

Parks immediately announced himself with a fantastic display against Leinster in a game Connacht won 34-6. It all seems so long ago now, but it was just last season! Shocking stuff. Parks had a hand in more famous Connacht victories in his two seasons here, including the win against Biarritz in the Sportsground, a game he captained. In addition the season ended with Connacht’s best ever league position. Things were on the up and up, although there was nervous anticipation as to what the future, Elwood-less Connacht would look like. Pat Lam came in and made all the right noises but its been a difficult (and still incomplete) process, as I partly outlined last week.

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With Lam’s arrival came a host of even Bigger Name Signings. Parks was great, but Craig Clark was a double Super XV winning captain. Jake Heenan was a New Zealand u-20s captain, and you know what that means right? Right? (do you? If you do please tell me). Things were looking even rosier than the season before.

A first game victory against Zebre was quickly forgotten as game after game Connacht struggled to assert themselves. The new gameplan was apparent, but it was not clear if it was actually working. Games were slipping from Connacht’s grasp, while the more than occasional thumping seemed to be creeping into the provinces form. In addition it seemed that Parks was somewhat uncomfortable with whatever Lam was asking him to do. Hadn’t Pat got the memo? Parksy don’t tackle!

Then, having not beaten anyone except Zebre in two months Connacht pulled off the win that shook Europe with a 14-16 victory against Toulouse in France. A province rejoiced, and European rugby congratulated those plucky Westerners who seemed to have made shock wins their forte. At the heart of this coup was Parks, who ran a perfect kicking game, even if at the time we weren’t sure his touchfinders couldn’t have done with an extra yard or two! The whole team was brilliant of course, but Parksy pulled the strings, and it was his kicks at goal that made the difference.

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We’ll always have Toulouse.

Which is just as well because for the rest of the season Parks was maddeningly inconsistent from the tee. I mean really, really, objectively bad; at times barely kicking more than 50%. He must have been really upset about the situation to be honest and I would be surprised if it didn’t start to effect his game at times.

With the benefit of hindsight its been said that Lam’s gameplan didn’t suit Parks and that’s perhaps why he was let go. I’m not convinced by this. I remember Parks’ first game against Leinster as a running rugby tour de force, as he played flat on the gainline, slinging passes left and right. Connacht’s best games have generally come when he played flat, which he is more than capable of doing.

Parks’ problems are in defence, and if a team gets a few hits in early in a game he has a tendency to sit back out of the way of contact. Everyone already knows he’s not one for breaks himself, so when he sits back it becomes even easier for the opposition to defend.

Those are not features that will make you the best fly half in the world admittedly, but he’s not the only one who’s been like that. If your fly half can’t or won’t tackle, don’t leave him in a position where he needs to do so.

Lam only realized this quite late in the season I think but when Parks’ moved out to the wing in defence against the likes of Dragons and tried to snipe interceptions it made the most of everyone’s resources. There are a variety of ways you can hide a fly half when in defence. I think that while it may be true that Parks did not naturally fit the gameplan initially its also fair to say he wasn’t the only one.

As I stated last week I think Parks’ poor kicking percentage this year is what done for him. Elwood brought him in specifically with the intention of reversing close fixtures and he just wasn’t able to do that, especially in his second season. I went looking for reasons why this was the case. It seems to me that Connacht do not have a kicking coach on the team – Dave Ellis might double up in that regard, but if so the website would most likely state this, as is the case with other teams websites. News reports from the time Ellis signed up state he is backs and skills coach, but not kicking.

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Most kickers have kicking coaches, and indeed the best kickers have kicking coaches – the B&I Lions brought one last year, Sexton has one, you might have heard of him; Wilkinson has had several. Its just what you do, its a necessary part of the backroom staff. They’re also an important factor in helping players adapt their style when and if they need to. Some players have the one run up their whole career, others change. There’s no one right way to kick the ball, except for the way that wins you games. I still haven’t found out definitively whether Connacht have a kicking coach or not but if not it would seem like a borderline dereliction of duty on behalf of the branch and Lam.

Because of his kicking rate, the shine seemed to have gone off Parks. Some players get to retire while still on top (O’Driscoll). Other players outstay their welcome, trying to squeeze that last drop out of their careers (also O’Driscoll). Not everyone can go out on top and it seemed like Parks had stayed too long.

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But had he? Parks featured in every single game for Connacht this season. That’s a phenomenal achievement for young players like Rodders and Marmion, but its borderline miraculous for a player of Parks’ experience. He featured off the bench in eight league games but that’s still a massive testament to his abilities. The previous year he played 17 league and 5 European games.

At the very least this shows that Parks was a fantastic return on investment in terms of pure minutes on the pitch.

In addition he tended to act as a ‘second captain’ on the field, ordering a ridiculously young backline around, getting players into position, guiding them through plays and giving them a pat on the back when things went wrong. Its hard not to present him as a type of father figure but from the snippets of second hand information I’ve heard about the younger group they saw him as that and they appreciated him for it. Connacht’s best games were also Parks’ loudest, and its just a pity that on occasion he seemed to clam up when he really needed to keep talking.

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A ridiculous amount of pressure was put on him during his time at Connacht. The next best fly half Nikora, started 7 games and came off the bench in 13 more in the last two league seasons. That wasn’t because Parks shut him out or Connacht were exploring other options – that was because he was injured for long periods of time. For much of Parks’ time at Connacht there was no viable alternative and what had initially seemed like a move to start gently winding down his career turned into a mammoth run especially this year.

There’s a sense that perhaps Parks’ was let go partly in order to pay the wages of Mils Muliana, Connacht’s Definitive Biggest Ever Signing. He is supposed to come in and provide a higher level of mentorship to our young backs. While I appreciate the reasoning, if Parks was let go because of Mils then its a little shortsighted. Someone still needs to run the games from 10 and kick the points.

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When you look at Nikora’s record in the league its actually quite surprising that he was kept on and not Parks. Behind him you have Ronaldson and Carty, both exciting youngsters but almost completely unproven, and Shane Leary bringing up the rear as another promising youngster. They’re going to need a lot of mentorship; can Mils’ provide the specific mentorship needed to teach a young fly half their skills? Only time will tell.

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I’m looking forward to next season with a lot of optimism, as I always do at this time of year. But there’s also a sense of trepidation that things could easily go badly wrong. We saw this year what its like to go without a player in the specialist positions of Hooker and Openside – it was pretty scary at times, and those are positions that you can paper over far better than a malfunctioning outhalf. If Heffernan had gotten injured along with all the other hookers, we could at least have shoved Buckley or Loughney into the two position and thrown to the front of every lineout. It might even have improved the scrum. That won’t be the case if Nikora’s out with another long term injury, and any of the back ups are either injured, playing out of position, out of form or just lacking guidance. In addition although there’s now at least four options to pick from at 10, none of them are proven to a great degree. Again I point to Nikora’s record – he has 55 league appearances to Parks 39, but that’s over five seasons versus two. To put that into context both Kearney and Marmion have over 50 caps now. If Nikora is to be Connacht’s lead operator he has a lot of catching up to do.

To circle back a bit in concluding, the last three years have brought some stars to Connacht, and maybe we got a bit blazé about Parks leaving with all these new names flying around. But there’s no doubt in my mind that of the last two years signings Parks has delivered the most, and perhaps the most consistently. Mils may beat him out next year but he has his work cut out for him.

We’ll always have Toulouse – Thanks for that Parksy.

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