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Archie McParland: 'Competing with Alex Mitchell is quite nice'

By Liam Heagney
Northampton's Archie McParland (Photo by Graham Chadwick/Getty Images)

Last Friday in Treviso was the game that got away on Archie McParland at the 11th hour. There he was, all set to make his England U20s debut when his body dramatically let him down. He took ill and rather than act selfishly by trying to play while feeling sick, he told Mark Mapletoft and co it would be best for the team if reserve scrum-half Ben Douglas was promoted to the starting XV.

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They agreed. McParland wasn’t missed in terms of the result; England still went on to win 36-11 against the Italians. But his honesty will now be rewarded this Friday night when he finally does make an age-grade Six Nations level debut versus Wales as his country’s No9.

We can only wish him well at this second time of asking. About what unfolded in Italy, he outlined: “Built up all week, all going well, and then felt a bit down going into Friday. Then on Friday, I just felt really rough. I had to make a decision going into the game.

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“I did the warm-up and I had to make a pretty hard decision. Because I have tonsillitis and I felt rough, really rough, and I didn’t want to let down the lads so I thought the best choice was to pull out. I would have loved to have played. It’s an honour to play for England and there was a massive build-up to that game.

“I was injured for six weeks (after Championship action with Bedford), so I was looking ahead to that game for quite a long time and then to not play was hard – especially with my family coming out to watch. It was a very hard decision to make but I’m always there to do the best for the team and that decision to pull out was definitely the best because I wouldn’t have been able to give my 100 per cent.

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“I just put on a coat and a blanket and headed outside to watch the boys from the sideline and support them. They did great for the first Six Nations game and all the new caps. There was a shaky start but we grew into the game and I thought we played very well. Ben Douglas, the other nine who had to play a full 80 when I pulled out, did very well.

“I’m all good now and looking forward to the Wales game. I would just like to add my own strengths as a player to the squad. I’d like to speed up the game, even though it was pretty quick (in Italy), just as add my strengths as a player.”

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It’s been a circuitous route to rugby prominence for McParland, both in terms of geography, schooling and playing position. Birkenhead-born with a liking as a young fella for Sale, the club he ironically made his Gallagher Premiership debut against last October, his route to Saints is interesting. “I lived in North Wales actually for nine years,” he explained.

“When I was eight I went to school in Shropshire about an hour and a half drive away, boarded there. After that, for some reason, I followed my sister down to Oundle School in Northamptonshire. I don’t know why she went there, to be honest. It’s a bit random.

“I didn’t actually really like it there so I had the choice of going to Stowe or Harrow – well, my parents gave me that choice. But I wanted to stay part of Saints and I knew that I had to stay in the Saints region.

“Harrow, I think, was in the London Irish region or something. So I thought if went to Stowe that would be a good decision and it ended up that it was. I really enjoyed my time there – and that is how I started off at Saints in the U13s.”

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Curiously, McParland was an out-half for two years before it was suggested that he move in one channel and instead become a scrum-half. “I switched over when lockdown started. It was a decision made by my academy coach at the time.

“I was pretty lucky to have that time to transition in lockdown. Having that spare time to practice skills so I could catch up. It’s been a hard switch but I have been very dedicated to making the most out of how I have changed. It’s been good and I think I have made the right choice.”

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What was the hardest part of changing? “Definitely, the passing. It’s something different. You see a scrum-half and everyone goes it’s easy but it’s clearly not. Getting that low to the ground and getting in that exact same position every single time takes a lot of time and a lot of dedication to actually get good at it.

“That’s not even to master it, that’s just to get pretty good. That’s definitely the hard bit. I got very fortunate I could do passing sessions quite a lot of the time in lockdown.”

Having signed his first professional contract ahead of the 2023/24 season, McParland can see first-hand at Saints how far talent can take a player and what is required to stand out.

The current England Test No9 Alex Mitchell is Phil Dowson’s first-choice scrum-half at Northampton and his story about shrugging off summer rejection from Steve Borthwick to starting in October’s Rugby World Cup semi-final is inspiring.

“There is definitely not a closed door. You are always going to be sad around selection or if you get injured but there is never a closed door, you can always come back and prove. In his case, he [Mitchell] was unfortunate with selection at the start but then got quite lucky with an injury (to Jack van Poortvliet) and now he is showing what he can do, so it’s good to see.

“He’s a very good player and definitely one of his strengths is his speed of pass and accuracy. We do skill sessions at Saints quite a lot so competing with him is quite nice. You get to see where you need to get to to become a world-class nine. So definitely still lots of improvement on my behalf, but I’m in a very fortunate position to be competing against one of the best nines in England.”

McParland, who turns 19 on February 17, already has his name inked in Northampton history as he became the youngest player in their professional era to play for the first-team when coming off the bench at the age of 17 years and 222 days old away to London Irish in the Premiership Rugby Cup.

“Very surreal,” he said, recalling that surreal September 2022 Tuesday. “Being at school, being in lessons, being around my friends and then having to head off down to Brentford to play London Irish, it was really weird.

“I never thought it would come that early to make my debut. It was a massive honour and a massive stepping stone. I’m really happy to have made it. That’s a year and a bit ago. I’m looking forward to keep improving and reaching that next stepping stone.”

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Jon 5 hours ago
British & Irish Lions free agent open to Super Rugby switch

There are a couple of teams who could use a stop gap experienced head. Blues - I’m not sure the Blues have signed a replacement for Caleb Tangitau (if he hasn’t been let go to make room for Barrett) yet, or whether Reiko is going on sabbatical and/or will remain in the squad. With exciting young French player Xavi Taele looking destined for higher honors in black, talented breakthrough rookie Cory Evan’s, and a couple of utilities, in AJ Lam and Bryce Heem(even Clarke?), all trying to learn the midfield trade, Williams could be a great aid. The Blues signed key English center Joe Marchant before he was raised to that level, and were possibly in the hunt to bring back the dependable Tele’a from the Highlanders. Possible the main squeeze which would put to bed any signing here would be the battle at 10 with Beauden’s return, and the forcing of Plummer back into the midfield. Hurricanes - Jordie Barrett is off to Leinster for a sabbatical next year but the more likely signing would be Billy’s brother back in the team. The Hurricanes are light on the outside with the loss of Salesi Rayasi to the Top 14 and if no quality is found to back up Kini Naholo, the midfield of Sullivan or Proctors could find themselves on the wing and space for a leader to show the Hurricanes three All Black midfield hopefuls (Higgins, Proctor, Umaga-Jensen) how its done. Highlanders - Rotation is high as usual at the Highlanders and versatility remains a strength with a lot of the squad. With compatriot Rhys Patchell signing a move to the JRLO, the passing of outside back Connor Garden-Bachop, and confirmed departure of Argentine wing Martin Bogado, the versatility of many of the young backups in the squad could see a veteran 12 like Williams being a strong partner for the robust Tele’a. With hope that the other Umaga-Jensen brother can force him out of the starting lineup, and shifting the sides general Sam Gilbert back into 10, the off-contract midfielder might seen as the perfect option for a squad still looking to fill one back spot.

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