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An Englishman abroad By Owain Jones

When the Zoom fires up, the beard is unmistakeable. It may have lost some of its unruliness from its pomp but, bar a few grey hairs, the 2013 Beard of the Year is in fine fettle.

Of course, the beard is attached to someone who was into facial hair long before it was de rigeur for every hipster in the land to sport one. For the uninitiated, the owner is one Geoff Parling, the softly-spoken former England and Lions second row now bunkered down in Melbourne, where he has placed his forensic mind into helping the Rebels stay one step ahead at the lineout and set-piece.

With sunlight blazing across his office desk, and a cacophony of laughter from his three children in the background, it would appear the 37-year-old is transitioning to civvy street in an agreeable manner.

Parling left Blighty four years ago for the sunsets of the Far East, with the Munikata Sanix Blues, but he explains it was far from pre-ordained that he would be basking in the Victoria sunshine years later.

“When we left in 2017 we fully expected to come back to the UK after Japan but we moved to one of Melbourne’s more expensive suburbs and thought, ‘We’ll only be here for six months, so let’s give it a crack’,” said Parling. “A few years on, and we’re pretty much stuck here and the kids love it. I must stress, we haven’t been living in a ‘normal life’, it has been ‘Covid-Melbourne’ but, like everyone, we’re very much looking forward to a normal life, whenever that may be.”

Geoff Parling
Geoff Parling takes on the Canterbury Crusaders defence in 2018 (Photo by Mike Owen/Getty Images)

After signing a two-year contract extension with the Super Rugby side, Parling wouldn’t be pressed on whether a life Down Under will be home for the long term. “In the coaching game, you can never plan too far ahead. I think coaching groups like the one you have at Exeter or Saracens, where they’ve been together for a decade, are exceptions to the norm. What I would say is that I am very settled.”

The gamble to head abroad hadn’t always been in Parling’s mind. In fact, when he left Leicester in 2015, for a two-year contract with Exeter Chiefs, the family were settled in the heart of Devon, but Parling had an itch to scratch. “I got to the stage where I knew my next contract would be my last and I wanted to experience something different. Rob Baxter asked me what I wanted to do and at 33, with a beaten-up body, I said, ‘I want to go elsewhere, Rob’,” said Parling. “It was crazy looking back but I wanted to be straight with him. I wasn’t even sure what was on offer out there.” 

Part of me wanted an adventure for my family, and part of me was getting away from reality back home, which is something I’ve not admitted to anyone before. No one should underestimate how big that World Cup exit was for a lot of people in that squad.

Geoff Parling

In hindsight, he thinks his wanderlust was down to other factors at play. “We’d bought what we thought was a forever house and I thought, ‘This is it’, but my mindset changed after the World Cup. I don’t know if it was escapism or something else, but perhaps some people underestimated the effect it had on us players. Part of me wanted an adventure for my family, and part of me was an getting away from reality back home, which is something I’ve not admitted to anyone before. No one should underestimate how big that World Cup exit was for a lot of people in that squad,” he said.

As for what attracted him to the city, he points to the 2013 Lions tour, where they played the second Test. “If I hadn’t gone on that Lions tour, I doubt I’d be here now. It’s the only time I spent a week in Melbourne. I remember getting home and telling the missus how much I’d loved it,” he said.

“To be honest, I think I timed my run well. I had four years in an England shirt and sandwiched between that was a Lions tour. The greatest shame of this tour was no fans out in South Africa. On the Wednesday before a Test, you’d a smattering of red shirts, on Thursday a few more and by Friday it was heaving. It was magic. The Lions is not a pay cheque for players. They’d do it for free and the coaches feel that way too.”

As his final season with the Chiefs progressed, other Premiership clubs got wind that the 32-cap international wanted one last hurrah, but his mind had been drawn to a franchise 12,000 miles away. “At the time I was thinking, ‘Jeez, what am I doing?’ But I basically got the email of the Melbourne Rebels CEO from one of the conditioning guys at Leicester and said, ‘Hey, it’s Geoff Parling, I love Melbourne and I’d love to experience Super Rugby. Could I join you guys next year?’ That’s literally how it went. Unlike Danny Cipriani, I’m not sure they knew who I was!”

Geoff Parling
Geoff Parling said England’s exit from the 2015 World Cup affected him deeply (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Parling is keen to dispel any notion that he left the UK for a bumper last contract. On the contrary, it was of more modest proportions. “People think when you sign the last contract of your career it is the most lucrative but it was probably my smallest. I was going to sign a six-month contract in the UK before that, just to tide me over until the Super Rugby started, but my friend Brett Herring was working in Japan as a D-coach with Jamie Joseph. His old club Sanex were looking for a lineout-calling lock so they asked me if I was a free agent. I said, ‘Why not’ so they gave me a number and I said, ‘If you give me net what I’m going to sign for gross, I’ll sign on the dotted line’,”  said Parling.

“It was funny, everyone thinks the Japanese are hi-tech, but they can’t email you or fax you a contract, they have to send it by letter, so it took about three weeks.” 

With high-profile players George Kruis, Alex Goode, Freddie Burns and soon Cory Hill experiencing the J-League, Parling says there are a multitude of factors to consider before signing up. “Would I want to go back there right now with my family? Not at the moment, no. At some clubs you’ll move into a fully furnished apartment, have a great bunch of foreign players and have an international school a stone’s throw away but I moved into a house that didn’t even have light fittings or air-conditioning – and we landed there when it was 44 degrees in extreme humidity,” he said.

It’s some challenge coaching when you can’t speak the language and you don’t have an interpreter. In Fukuoka I couldn’t even get a debit card to my own money because I was a foreign national.

Geoff Parling on the culture shock of working in Japan

However, the former Newcastle University business and economics graduate says there were some perks: “In terms of what you get out there, the money is better than New Zealand or Australia, but not much different from the UK market, which is competitive. The players get paid very well.”

There are other benefits from heading to Japan, especially if your body has been through the mixer after 15 seasons of pro rugby. “Your body doesn’t feel as beat up. You might have a five-month pre-season for a two-and-a-half-month season, which suited me. We didn’t have an interpreter at the club, so I’d communicate through one of my good mates who was Korean but grew up in New Zealand and spoke Japanese,” he added.

After his first season with the Rebels, he returned in his second year where he was player-coach, further testing his interpersonal skills. “It’s some challenge coaching when you can’t speak the language and you don’t have an interpreter,” he says, deadpan. “I was in Fukuoka where I couldn’t even get a debit card to my own money because I was a foreign national. George (Kruis) actually called me to ask me about life out there before he signed for Panasonic Wild Knights but they are a very progressive club and he has landed on his feet.”

Geoff Parling
Geoff Parling enjoys winning the 2017 Premiership final with Exeter Chiefs (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

When Parling finally hung up his boots in January 2019, he headed back to Melbourne for life on the road with the Rebels. The biggest eye-opener, he admits, was the scale of travel, which made Newcastle Falcons to Exeter seem like a doddle. “Rugby is different in Australia. You have to fly to every single game and our closest rivals are a 90-minute flight away so every game is two nights away, minimum,” he said. “You are also going across time zones and the season is shorter but, day to day, as a coach, it’s not too different to home prep-wise.”

While still in the embryonic stages of his coaching career, Parling was pulled into the Wallaby coaching set-up in 2020, where he added his expertise to the lineout. While he was honoured to be asked to add value to Dave Rennie’s coaching team, he now admits it was a taxing time for him personally, being away from his young family: “Last year I was away for eight out of 12 months and it made me re-evaluate how I was living. If I was asked for my values, I’d say family would be my No1, but last year, would other people look at it and agree? I don’t think so. It was a very intense period and fortunately my wife, Elle, who works in Orthopaedics and runs a sports-grip business, is an absolute rock but it’s unsustainable long term.” 

Cockers isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but the way he drove discipline from the top was to be respected. Is that the way lots of other coaches want to do it? No, but you knew what behaviours were expected of you, which is very important as a player.

Geoff Parling

For Parling, getting the life-work balance right is not something he’s going to take for granted again. “Now I’ll do my prep but if my kids (Henry, 10, May, 8 and Eve, 4) have something important in school, I’m going to it,” he said. “When I did the Bledisloe Cup last year, my first ever taste of international coaching at 36, one of my main feelings that day was, ‘Shit, I’d love to take my kids to school today’. I hadn’t seen them for four of five months, which sounds cheesy but it was the truth. You work out what matters in life.”

Still only 37, Parling is a pup in coaching terms and says he has a lot to learn, taking elements of each of the coaches he has worked under: “Take Cockers (Richard Cockerill). He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but the way he drove discipline from the top was to be respected. Is that the way lots of other coaches want to do it? No, but you knew what behaviours were expected of you, which is very important as a player. As for Rob (Baxter), he taught me how to create togetherness in the club and how to let players in the playing group be themselves. Then there’s Dave Wessels, who was very good at finding new ways to learn, say how you present in meetings, or teach new styles. I should say I’m chuffed for Lanny (Stuart Lancaster) and what he has achieved at Leinster.”

Geoff Parling
Geoff Parling was a series-winning Test Lion in 2013 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

One thing he is thankful for is that the Rebels have encouraged him to push his coaching development. “Just before Covid, I went on a little fact-finding trip to the Seattle Seahawks. They were great people and I loved it, but they weren’t doing anything that blew me away S&C wise. What I’d say about coaching is there’s no one way of doing things. It’s what works for you and that group. There’s no magic wand. Sometimes you get a bit of luck along the way, which is the same as any other business. Of course, you need to be well prepped, have good structures, decent people around you and be consistent in what you do but sometimes, it’s just a bit of spark,” he said.

What really appeals to Parling’s nurturing side is when he sees someone he has worked with realise his potential. “This job gives me the opportunity to help players grow. Take Rob Leota. He recently got called up for the Wallaby training squad and it made me feel 10ft high, it was better than winning a trophy,” he added.

Jonny Hill was probably written off a bit, but Rob Baxter took a punt on him and he’s found an environment that suits him. People think he’s laid-back and quite gangly but he’s tough. He can belt people and be a nuisance at maul-time. Don’t underestimate him.

Geoff Parling

As for the travails of Eddie Jones’ boys, Parling isn’t losing sleep over a poor Six Nations campaign that left them in fifth place. “I’m not worried about England. I don’t know what’s going on in camp, but they have a good player pool. It’s great to see someone like Marcus Smith playing in the England shirt and I think they’ll be very competitive at the next World Cup,” said Parling.

“I was pleased to see Jonny Hill doing well. I sent him a congrats text about the Lions call-up. Jonny was probably written off a bit early on, but Rob Baxter took a punt on him and he has found an environment that suits him. People think he’s laid-back and quite gangly but he’s tough. He can belt people and be a nuisance at maul-time. Don’t underestimate him.”

Some would say Parling was underestimated as a player but he is carving out a respectable career as a coach. When we will see him back on these shores is uncertain, but the affable lock is one to keep tabs on. With a sharp, analytical mind and personable nature, he could well be an asset to a club, or country, in the not-too-distant future.

More stories from Owain Jones

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