The stereotype of the international rugby player to some may involve a silver spoon, but England lock Geoff Parling tells a different story from the unassuming grounds of Stockton Rugby Football Club.
Sat in the Station Road changing rooms last week just as he did when he was 12 years old, even a British and Irish Lions series win in Australia and a place at Premiership champions Leicester Tigers has not changed the cloth from which the 30-year-old is cut.
“Local rugby clubs are a way for kids of different backgrounds to come together with a common goal, even though there is still a perception for some people that rugby is only for toffs,” says Parling, sporting his Stockton tracksuit after a two-hour coaching session with the club’s under 13 and 14s.
His appearance was part of the ‘Join In’ campaign to get volunteers into sport, but was far from an isolated return to a club which holds him dear.
“In the current England squad I think there are only three lads who have been privately educated all the way through, but people can’t come through the club system without the volunteers who run the teams and keep the thing going,” he says.
Recalling his own experiences of a Stockton junior section which produced numerous County Cup-winning teams, he explains: “Every Tuesday night I would come down to Stockton whether it was raining, snowing or whatever, and there would be coaches organising sessions, getting people picked up and dropped off, sorting the kit and all the rest of it. Without those guys it doesn’t happen.
“I actually started playing for Stockton when I was 12 years old, which is probably pretty late compared to a lot of people. I got involved for the Darlington Festival, really enjoyed myself and just wanted to be a part of it.
“That 12-16 age group is probably your most enjoyable time as a rugby player, which might sound a little bit weird given things that have happened since then for me.
“You just play for fun, you are under no pressure and you are just enjoying yourself. Our coach Nick Moore created a fantastic culture and, while we did have a very good team, it was just all about fun.” Parling has never forgotten the role Moore played in his development, his former coach there on the day and the pair laughing as Parling recalls the detailed wisdom handed down.
“Nick used to have a very particular order in which he would get dressed after training or games, and I still use it to this day,” he says.
“One of the things that sums Nick up for me is if an opposition team turned up with 13 players he would give them our two best lads to make it 15 v 15, and he would make sure everyone got game-time.
“Because everyone had enjoyed themselves there was not so much of a drop-out in terms of lads moving away from the game, and the parents would be involved going on our tours and helping out in various ways. It was a jolly for them as well as the kids, and everyone loved it.”
Insisting his own involvement at Stockton reflects a wider philosophical message from England head coach Stuart Lancaster, he adds: “One thing I find with England at the moment is that the international team and the grass-roots games are as close as they have ever been,certainly in the professional era,anyway.
“I would put a lot of that down to Stuart, and there have been initiatives like last year when we ran out at Twickenham for the autumn test with a junior player from our first club. I ran out with Josh, from Stockton, who I saw again at this coaching session, and it was a brilliant idea.
“Stuart realises the importance of junior clubs, firstly because that is where the next generation of players is coming from, and secondly just because they are integral to the whole game.
“He is doing a brilliant job, and he has got us training in Leeds rather than Portugal now!
“I always felt there was too much distance between the national side and the kind of regular rugby public, but he has really eaten into that and I think people have responded positively to what he has done.”
Coming back to Stockton as a hero and role-model but still remaining one of the lads, the former Newcastle Falcon says: “Yeah, it is a bit strange in a way coming back when people think of you as this sort of international player or whatever, given I just came here as a kid like every other person.
“I came here and gave a bit of a talk a month or so ago, and brought some kit to be auctioned.
“I enjoyed it, and people were really appreciative.”