Big in Japan Former Lion Parling on using a translator for his line-out calls
England lock is relishing his six-month adventure and believes a club game in Tokyo could succeed
Former Lions and England lock Geoff Parling believes that the globe-trotting inclinations of the Aviva Premiership could mean a game is played in Japan. The second-row forward, who signed off his Exeter career with a champions title in May to go with two won at Leicester, has begun a six-month stint with Munakata Sanix Blues, an hour north of Fukuoka and a 2019 World Cup venue. As Parling, 33, has looked to extend his horizons, with a contract to come in Super Rugby with Melbourne Rebels, so, too, has the Premiership. On Saturday Saracens take on Newcastle Falcons in Philadelphia. The aim is to test out new markets, much in the mould of Parling himself, whose initial intention was merely to head to Australia.
“I wanted a different experience and I admit I jumped into this quite blind,” he said. “I’d already fixed up to go to the Rebels and this arrangement came about in March through an agent I’d never met and without me speaking to anyone at the club. I could have stayed on at Exeter, where I had a brilliant time, France was an option but nothing really came up. I knew in my heart that I wanted something different.
“My family was quite shocked. My mum and dad are real north easterners and thought it was a long way off when I went to Leicester from Newcastle. But Japan has been a great experience, not without difficulties, but it has made me open up and adapt. It [a Premiership game here] would work, yeah, the odd game [overseas] is brilliant, even though it would probably have to be Tokyo.
“This is a quiet area, which suits me, with crowds of only around 4,000 or so, although we did get 15,000 for a pre-season warm-up against Auckland Blues.”
Just as England will have to adjust when they base themselves here in this southerly island of Kyushu at Miyazaki prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, so, too, has Parling. The family arrived in a rush, still packing up to an hour before departure at the end of June, three children in tow, the last of them, Eve, born only in March. Parling had warned his two older children, Henry (six) and May (four), not to expect familiar comforts or food, especially chips.
“We were put up in a hotel for the first three days and all came down to breakfast to find chips with tomato ketchup served up,” said Parling, who did wonder if he had made the right decision when the family moved into a flat a few days later. “There was no airconditioning and it was stifling hot and humid, with me heading out the door to training with my wife, Elle, struggling on the floor with a newborn baby waiting for a delivery from IKEA.”
The acclimatisation process is well under way. The kids tuck into their raw fish sashimi diet, have spent a family weekend at an old-fashioned mountain Ryokan retreat and are integrated at the International School in Fukuoka. Parling was just about to pick them up having done a day’s training back in Munakata. “It was into the sea for a swim after training, only about 50 metres away,” said Parling, who has a fishing trip on the schedule. “I’ve always been the organised type and like to do things in a certain way. But you have to expect a bit of randomness here. That’s been good. I want to get into coaching and I’m looking after the set-piece. I changed the line-out calls on my second day, all of which went through a translator so that got a bit confusing. There are lots of little things that pop up. The beachfront by the clubhouse would have cafes and hotels in England but here everything is much further inland as they are all aware of natural disasters. A siren goes off every day at 5pm, a signal for people to finish work.
“The Japanese are so polite, so friendly and helpful, but players sometimes struggle to believe they can beat the big clubs because they have this respect for authority and elders. The pace of the game is faster but not as physical.”
The Sanix Blues are unique in that they are fully professional yet cannot compete with the budgets of the big corporation teams such as Kobe or Panasonic, where the Japanese players are considered company employees.
Parling will return to Japan following his stint with the Rebels primed for a move into coaching, much as England forwards coach Steve Borthwick once did. Travel and the broadening of minds is an enduring theme.
New world: Geoff Parling playing for Sanix Blues in Japan, and (below) picking up the title with Exeter