Many rugby supporters west of the River Severn would probably choose two moments if asked to recall their favourite Hadleigh Parkes deeds in a Wales jersey.
One might be the try he scored to set in motion the 25-7 win over Ireland that clinched a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2019. The other could be the tackle on Jacob Stockdale minutes later that saw the then Scarlet surge back and haul down the pacey Ireland wing — who’d been timed at 9.97 metres per second not long before —in full-flight. It was early in the game, but the hit saved a try that might have altered the game’s momentum.
Had Parkes not donned his superhero cape in that moment, the thinking is Wales’ then defence chief Shaun Edwards would not have been a happy man. “I was thinking, ‘Jess, Shaun’s probably about to jump out of his box and rip our heads off’,” Jonathan Davies is quoted as saying in Behind the Dragons: Playing Rugby for Wales. “I was convinced he [Stockdale] was going to score — and then Parksey jumped out of nowhere, like Roadrunner or something.”
But there was always a bit more to Parkes than his efforts on the field.
The mind rewinds to a Judgement Day game between the Scarlets and the Dragons at the Principality Stadium. After a tight first half, players dashed towards the dressing rooms for their interval break, with spectators trying to touch them as they did so. Many arms were extended, but most players just carried on with their journeys towards the sheds, perhaps wanting to stay in the zone, to adopt modern-day parlance. Some adopted fixed stares. Parkes did a bit more, reaching out himself to those who wanted to touch him. At one point he leaned over almost to where a couple of fans were sitting. It was just a two-second thing, easy to miss, but it made the supporters’ day.
Today, he is on a Zoom call from Japan, where he plays in Rugby League One for Ricoh Black Rams Tokyo. Fellow expats Greig Laidlaw and Joe Launchbury are also on the link, the trio appearing relaxed and enjoying life. It’s Parkes’ third season out east after two unbeaten title-winning campaigns with Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights.
He, wife Suzy and daughter Ruby move east in 2020. There have been no regrets. “As a young family, we’ve really enjoyed it,” he says.
“It’s been an amazing experience and I’m still enjoying it.
“My love of the game is still there and I’m still enjoying running around and going training.
“It’s my third season now. The game is popular here with big crowds going to matches and the skill level is pretty outstanding, with a lot of quick players who like the offload and play at a high tempo.
“There are some big boys here as well.
“So it’s a pretty good league. A couple of teams lead the pack, but every other side and their companies want to improve standards to get up to that level.”
There are other pluses: “Even though it was a negative two degrees in Tokyo this morning and pretty cold, the sun’s still shining. If it’s a negative two in Wales, there could be a bit of rain coming down. It does get very cold in the winter, but you get those nice sunny days. You might not be able to feel your fingers, but it’s still a lot better than running around in the rain the whole time.”
But he relished his time in Wales, relished being at the Scarlets and relished pulling on the red jersey for the national team. He previously told WalesOnline: "I loved every moment of it, whether it was the hard training sessions, the pre-season leading up to the World Cup or actually playing. It was something I never thought would happen and I absolutely loved every moment of it, and I'm proud to have done it. So the support is very much appreciated."
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Twenty five of his 29 caps were won under Warren Gatland, who once called him the ‘glue’ in the national team’s backline.
How does Parkes view Gatland’s return to his old job after Wayne Pivac’s exit.
“He was pretty successful in the 12 years that he was there last time,” he says, “and he certainly knows how to get the best out of the players. He’s a good talker and a good leader of the players.
“I’m sorry for Pivac, as well, because I got on well with him, but, unfortunately, it’s a pretty brutal business at times.
“But, look, it’s exciting for Gats to get back in there. He’s made a few changes within the coaching set-up and it’s an interesting squad that he’s selected, with a few new boys coming in. It’ll be an exciting Six Nations with Gats being back involved, while having Ireland first up at the Principality is probably not a bad time to get them. So, who knows?”
Was there one thing that made Gatland different from other coaches Parkes played under? “He’s a real family-first guy,” he says.
“If you ever went to him with anything, really, he was always willing to [listen] and he was always really good to the players. Sometimes, that’s a way to get the best out of the players and your team.”
Parkes has been following Welsh rugby’s fortunes from afar. The national team’s struggles over the past 12 months have been well documented, with just three wins from 12 games and the lows including demoralising home setbacks against Italy and Georgia.
Gatland is no miracle worker, but there has been a noticeable uplift in performances at some of the regions since his return to Welsh rugby was announced. Can the effect filter through to Test level?
“He knows a lot of those players that he’s picked,” says Parkes. “He’s had much to do with the senior boys with Wales and the British and Irish Lions, while he has got the best out of Wales at times. He had three Grand Slams and another title during his 12 years when he was first in charge, so he’s been pretty successful and he likes the Six Nations.
“And the Welsh players enjoy the Six Nations. It’s going to be a tough ask because Ireland are a very good side and playing extremely well, but if Wales can get off to a good start it certainly sets them up for the rest of the tournament. Fingers crossed for them that they can do that.”
Let’s return to Japan and its attractions, specifically for rugby players in Britain, where for some money’s proving almost too tight to mention, as Simply Red might have said. Might the financial situation tempt more to look to Japan? “I’ve been getting a few texts from a couple of mates who are playing up there,” says Parkes.
“You’ve seen what’s happened in England with the two clubs [Wasps and Worcester Warriors] hitting problems and in Wales as well with what’s going on there, with negotiations between the clubs and the WRU not quite coming to a conclusion.
“It’ll be an interesting couple of years over there. There are a couple of texts coming through. But when push comes to shove, whether the boys want to move to a different culture and a different area is up to them, so I don’t know.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. The other two lads on the call here are really enjoying it. I’m sure if people got the opportunity they’d enjoy it as well.”
Asked to expand on whether players were expressing interest in moving to Japan, he replied: “Yes, there have been a couple. I think it’s more that players are intrigued and interested in the way it’s run over here, the lifestyle and the cultural differences and the shorter season.
“There is a lot of interest, especially with what’s going on back in Wales at the moment with the negotiations and it looks like the clubs are downsizing their squads.
“But, again, until something’s put in front of you, I guess it’s whether you’re willing to move to the other side of the world. And for those players involved in the Welsh set-up, if you don’t have 60 caps you can’t play for Wales.
“So there are big decisions you have to make.”
Parkes is confident that senior statesmen in the Wales squad such as Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones won’t have any problems making it through to the World Cup in France in the autumn.
“Why not?” he says. “Ken had a pretty good autumn campaign. From what I’ve been reading it sounds like Alun Wyn has been playing extremely well in the last couple of Ospreys games as well.
“Those guys wear their hearts on their sleeves and they are great Welsh boys who’ve played their whole careers in Wales. Representing Wales is a huge honour for them. They talk well around the team and they’ve played not just for Wales but for the British and Irish Lions as well. If they can keep performing and playing well, there’s no reason why they can’t get through to the World Cup.”
Once asked which of his team-mates at the Scarlets he would be if such a thing were possible, Rhys Patchell said: “It would be a toss-up between John Barclay and Hadleigh Parkes.
“They’ve just got it sussed.
“I look at them and those boys never look stressed. They know when to switch on and off.
“They have it nailed as far as I’m concerned.”
Not much has changed for Parkes.
Whether in Hunterville, Llanelli or Tokyo, the suspicion is he’d still have it sussed.
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