Aviva Premiership champions Leicester Tigers were equalled only by RaboDirect Pro12 winners Leinster in terms of the number of their players selected in the original party by Warren Gatland for his touring Lions; both saw six players called up to ‘the ultimate honour in northern hemisphere rugby’/a HSBC-sponsored travelling jamboree to clobber understrength provincial teams for the amusement of sauced-up tourists and ex-pats.
While the Leinster-based players had been flagged as contenders for a number of years on the strength of back-to-back Heineken Cups and previous experience [incredibly, this is Brian O’Driscoll’s fourth tour, while Rob Kearney was a standout four years ago in South Africa and Jamie Heaslip played every minute of that test series], a couple of Leicester players made the squad in a very hard way, emerging from obscurity over the space of one very arduous and ultimately rewarding season.
Looking through the amount of gametime and numbers of starts that the various members of the Lions touring party have made for their respective clubs and countries, it quickly becomes apparent that the Tigers get their full money’s worth out of their players. The three Lions who have played the most rugby in the 2012-13 regular season [i.e. club and test competitions before the Lions tour] are all Leicester men. Two of them – the other is Manu Tuilagi – are tight five forwards and were relative unknowns outside of the midlands until a year ago.
Midget Hookers Are Go!
Tom Youngs is a very special example of a late bolter, an intriguing study of a player who made a massive positional change during his senior career. Youngs [T.N. Youngs, as he is known in RFU circles] made every English representative team from U16 to U20 as a centre and, after a preparatory season with Bedford in the Championship, debuted for Leicester in the 2006-07 season a month before his twentieth birthday.
However, his prospects were more limited than his young age at debut would indicate, and over the next three season he would only play in ten games for the club in all competitions. His career seemed to have stalled badly. Enter Heyneke Meyer.
The now-Springbok Head Coach had a very tough time in his short stint at Welford Road due to serious illness in his family, and his tenure only extended to six months before he and the club parted ways amicably. Taken in that context, it’s arguable that his most resounding act while at the club was convincing Youngs to change his position from centre to hooker. Meyer is the first to protest that the success of the move is more down to Youngs’ determination and ability than his own vision as a coach, but it’d be foolish to argue that it has been anything but a triumph, and the South African deserves his share of the kudos. However, it wasn’t a flick of the switch/silver bullet type of job.
Youngs made his first start at hooker against Leeds in the LV Cup in November 2009, and his only other start that season came in the same competition in February 2010 against Northampton. His gametime was just as limited at hooker during that 2009-10 season as it had been at centre in his previous three seasons with the club, and the decision was made to up sticks and move to Nottingham. There was a bit of push-and-pull involved: Nottingham needed a hooker, and Leicester have often used Championship clubs as a vehicle for progressing their younger players.
Youngs spent the 2010-11 season with the championship club, playing twenty games and scoring seven tries before returning to Leicester in time for the 2011-12 term, a season which again saw a very limited number of starts – just one, and again it came in the LV Cup – but far more gametime off the bench, including a first appearance in the Heineken Cup.
That was topped by practically the most encouraging announcement imaginable for a player in his situation: a call up to the Stuart Lancaster’s England squad for their tour of South Africa in June 2012. Again, the context is important, and underlies the leap of faith that Lancaster made in the player: before the English squad selection, Youngs hadn’t even started a single game at hooker in the Premiership.
Since then, however, Youngs has gone from strength to strength and has piled up a magnificent season, starting a whopping 31 games before the Lions tour and producing a scarcely less whopping 2094 minutes of gametime for both England and Leicester, which is easily the most of any of the front rowers selected [the next most is Leicester team-mate Dan Cole, who has put in 1864 minutes for club and country – they don’t go easy on their players in the midlands]. His season looked to have culminated with a hard-earned Premiership Player of the Year win, but surely a starting spot in the No2 jersey for the first test of the Lions series will have trumped even that gong.Captain Darling
The Geoff Parling Story™ isn’t as dramatic as Tom Youngs’ Tale© , lacking as it does the transformative element, but there are unavoidable similarities between the two.
Like Youngs, Parling has played a huge amount of rugby this season for Leicester and England: in fact, he’s played the most of anybody in the squad in terms of minutes, with a whopping 2346 minutes under his belt for club and country.
Parling has been a vital presence for both teams too, going the distance in practically every game. Amongst Lions squad members, he ties for second place with Wales and Cardiff Blues winger Alex Cuthbert in terms of the average number of minutes per game played, at 78 mins/game [Ireland and Leinster No8 Jamie Heaslip tops the list with an average of 79 mins per game].
Take The Long Cut
Guys win selection for the Lions on different criteria. Paul O’Connell only played a quarter of the minutes that Parling put in this season – 598 mins as opposed to the aforementioned 2346 mins – but had captained the Lions on the previous tour and been inked in early to every test team in the ill-fated 2005 edition. All he needed to show Warren Gatland that he was a contender was to hit the old high notes in a big game, and he did that with a frankly awesome display in Munster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final triumph over Harlequins in The Stoop. Ticket booked on proven quality.
Richie Gray had a very disjointed domestic season for a brutal Sale team, and at test level never hit the form he showed against England and Ireland in the 2012 Six Nations, or against France in the 2011 tournament. Nonetheless, he was always likely to tour based on his enormous athletic ability. Ticket booked on rare potential.
Obviously you can earn selection in different ways – it’s not O’Connell’s fault that he was injured for example, and he has already proven that his selection was a good call by his performances on tour – but Parling earned the nod a very hard way, with very little hype: nine test starts [including a win over the All Blacks], seven Heineken Cup starts and thirteen Aviva Premiership starts. Ticket booked on form.
He was late to the international party. He only made his test debut in February 2012 as a 28 year old, when Lancaster dropped Tom Palmer for him mid-tournament after Parling had done well coming off the bench for the Wasps man in a couple of games, and The Mole has the feeling that quite a few of the English rugby media regarded him as one of Lancaster’s ‘transitional’ players, like Charlie Hodgson or Mauritz Botha or Phil Dowson. To be honest, I sort of did as well.
Those guys were/are reliable characters and big-hearted club players who were brought in for the 2012 Six Nations to cover the retiring rump of the last men standing from the Webb Ellis-winning 2003 brigade [Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall, Lewis Moody and Simon Shaw, all of whom were members of the RWC11 squad].
It’s quite easily forgotten because of the progress Lancaster has overseen, but at the time of his appointment English rugby was in considerable turmoil. A stodgy and unimpressive RWC11 that was almost derailed by allegations of cheating and a number of tabloid splashes about the loutish behaviour of the squad had been supplemented by leaked reports and no small amount of political in-fighting within the RFU.
Lancaster chose those caretaker players to come in and steady the ship for the 2012 Six Nations, to put his stamp on the team and perhaps to repair some of the damage to the reputation of English rugby by the V-Gang and their ilk. He recognised that you couldn’t rebuild a team by introducing a host of youngsters all in one group, and aside from that, he valued the experience and competitive instincts that these older players, some of them overlooked for test selection for a number of years, could bring.
As Bill Belichic Has Been Occasionally Known To Say, “Do Your Job”
It’s well known that Lancaster places a strong emphasis on character and behaviour, but as a very technically astute coach [one of the very few Elite Coaching Level 5 accredited coaches in the UK] he also knew specifically what he was looking for in players with regards to technical abilities and their role within the team.
Joe Launchbury rightly got a lot of positive press for his performances for England over the 2012-13 season [although he tailed off noticeably towards the end of the term as a lot of high-grade rugby took its toll], and Courtney Lawes always generates a heady atmosphere amongst the English media, but Parling was the guy putting in 80 minute game after 80 minute game for club and country, leading the lineout and rarely putting a foot wrong in any phase of play. He’s a clever, technical, hard-edged second row who has relatively quickly become a vital part of the English team.
You’d imagine that sometimes a guy who only makes his test debut late on in his career can feel a bit unsure of himself or something of a fringe player. The other guys of his age in the team probably have more than a half century of caps, and the youngsters coming into the team are very noticeably talented and are making their breakthrough into international rugby at an age when the late-bloomer was probably still struggling to make his club’s first team regularly.
On the other hand, experiencing disappointments in your career can definitely grow character if there’s a resilient streak in your personality. As John Buchan wrote, “It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken.” Maybe I’m reading too much into a brief snapshot of the Lions changing room after the loss to the Brumbies, but The Mole thought it spoke legions that it was Parling – only a sub on the day – who was addressing the players after the defeat. He had their full attention.
Entirely Contrived Deja Vu
It was when Parling took the floor in the changing room at Canberra Stadium that The Mole was reminded of Nigel Redman, an injury call-up to the 1997 Lions.
Redman was a somewhat undersized second-row [topping out at 193cm/6’4″] in an era of giant English packs … hmmm, that doesn’t really narrow it down. English packs are always pretty big, but their pack of the mid-80s to early 90s absolutely dwarfed whatever opposition they faced. Given that height is always an issue in the second row, he was unlucky that his career coincided with a particularly strong generation of English locks, all of them massive coppers: the 6’6″ Paul Ackford, the 6’8″ Wade Dooley and the 6’10” Martin Bayfield.
Nonetheless, he had some career. It probably falls short of astounding, but it’s hella interesting. He was a constant contributor to the enormously successful Bath team of the 1980s and 90s, playing no fewer than three hundred and fifty games for the club, winning ten RFU Senior Cups, six league titles and the European Cup.
He won twenty caps for his country, but that hardly tells the full story: he won those twenty caps over thirteen years. All three of Dooley [57 caps, 1985-93], Bayfield [34 caps, 1991-96] and Ackford [25 caps, 1988-91] won more caps than him, but Redman started earlier than any of them – winning his first cap in November 1984, three months after his twentieth birthday – and outlasted them all, earning his final cap in July 1997, the month before his thirty-third birthday.
Still, he was a left-field call-up for the Lions. He had played just one game for England since 1994 … but that game couldn’t have been better timed, coming as it did on 30 May 1997 in Argentina. England had sent Martin Johnson and Simon Shaw off to the Lions, and then English coach Jack Rowell [who would be replaced by Clive Woodward in September of that year] called Redman back into the second row to add some steel and experience to combat a ferocious Pumas pack. As head coach at Bath between 1978 and 1994 – when he took over the England job – Rowell had been the puppet-master who pulled the strings during the West Country side’s rise to dominance in England. He had overseen the entirety of Redman’s career to that point, and knew what he could bring to the table.
In itself, it was a surprise call at the time, but there were more surprises in store: less than two weeks later Redman got the nod from Ian McGeechan to come out and replace Doddie Weir, who had been injured by a filthy piece of foul play in a fractious match against Mpumalanga, the sort of ‘softening up’ game that had long been a part of amateur Lions tours. By the end of the tour the Bath lock had featured in four midweek games, including captaining the side against Orange Free State. He was a small revelation on the tour, showing great footballing ability in the Lions’ up-tempo style – they scored 190 points in those four games and conceded 105 in some high-scoring shootouts [they won all four, incidentally] – and bringing the toughness and authority that was needed in what were physical and often dirty encounters.
Who Gets The Credit?
Parling looks to bring the same combination of unflashy technical ability, intelligence and hard-headedness as Redman possessed. Though Bath fans might dispute it, Leicester have probably been even more dominant over the last decade and a half than Bath were in their pomp, and just as the culture that Jack Rowell created at The Rec opened a production line for the English team, due praise should go to the major figures in the Leicester coaching staff over that period for doing the same thing.
They work their players hard in terms of putting them out on the field week-in, week-out, and The Mole thinks it’s no coincidence that these guys are performing well on this tour in what could be considered to be the leading edge of the NH game.
Beyond that, what does it say about Stuart Lancaster’s eye for talent that two unheralded players he plucked from relative obscurity within the last eighteen months have gone on to make the match-day squad for the Lions first test? A lot.