Friday 15 December 2017

Parra ready to break Irish hearts again after biding time on bench

Donnacha Ryan tackles France's Morgan Parra (left) during the RBS 6 Nations match at the Stade de France, Paris, France last year
Donnacha Ryan tackles France's Morgan Parra (left) during the RBS 6 Nations match at the Stade de France, Paris, France last year
David Kelly

David Kelly

Sometimes it seems as if Morgan Parra could almost win a game on his own, just with a laconic, Gallic shrug of his shoulders and an admonishing wagging finger in the direction of the referee.

The Metz-born scrum-half is one of the world's most annoying rugby players. Opponents often want to strangle him; sometimes referees also; occasionally, it has been intimated, team-mates too.

Supporters – male or female, it is true for each – toy between wanting to kick him or kiss him. And that's just his countrymen. Typically French, typically enigmatic and, perhaps, typically misunderstood.

But Parra has so much more to offer than merely obeying a national stereotype. And his private image is, as those who know him protest, utterly contrary to that often loose-lipped and louche on-field presence, seeking to eke out advantage in any way possible.

Although just 24, he is already working towards completing his full French Rugby Federation coaching badges. He coaches a local team near his Clermont Auvergne base, Les Martres de Veyre, twice a week.

"The guys go to work," says Parra. "Then they come to training and then go to work again the next day. It makes me realise how lucky I am.

"When I don't want to go training I think of these guys and the sacrifices they make. It has shown me the true rugby values of solidarity and friendship within a team."


On the field, while the extravagant body language remains unnecessary, it is almost a second skin to this remarkable competitor, particularly since he never allows it to shield him from adversity.

Remember, this is a guy who selflessly tracked down the giant Manu Tuilagi in Twickenham last time out, an exercise many others would have deemed academic, who has a 75pc success rate from place-kicks at Test level and whose dominance behind the scrum at times sees him also assume the directing role of the out-half.

Oh, and he has dabbled at out-half, as is the French way, playing there for his country during the eccentric route to the World Cup final. It didn't faze him; not much seems to.

And, despite another eccentric coaching ticket deeming that the form scrum-half in world rugby was capable only of warming pine during the early part of France's horrendous 2013 campaign, his restoration to the starting line-up in Twickenham last time out should send a shiver skating down every Irish supporter's spine.

Especially those Leinster supporters still coming to terms with their Heineken Cup grief, throughout which Parra's astonishing performances in the latest sequence in a fascinating rivalry, dominated both December's pool games, particularly the tie in Dublin.

For, as snappy as his delivery from either side, often thrillingly flinging himself old-school to the floor or elaborately slinging the ball from out the back of either hand, he can deliver verbal volleys with comparable velocity and ferocity.

In 2010, an old-style rant wounded Declan Kidney's men, puncturing the northern hemisphere champions' long unbeaten run and arguably destroying a mystique from which Ireland have failed to recover ever since.

Despite their Grand Slam success of 2009, Ireland's often limited style of play didn't endear them to many in world rugby and Parra seemed particularly piqued as he launched an astonishing assault before their 2010 Paris meeting.

"They have a great defence. They're cheating, but intelligently cheating. It's very well done," said Parra. "We can be impressed by certain players but not in general by their team."

Ireland, mirroring the humility-infected reign of their coach, refused to respond off the field.

Trouble was, they failed to respond on it either, a 33-10 smashing, consummately controlled by 15-point Parra, reinstating Ireland's familiar submissive tendencies when confronted by Les Bleus.

It was par for the course for Parra, for whom it has always seemed as if he has been groomed to such an authoritative role.

Parra first tossed an oval ball with wild abandon as a four-year-old with the local club, then switching to Dijon before joining the famed French youth academy at Marcoussis.

In November 2006, he celebrated his 18th birthday by making his senior debut against Agen at out-half. Soon realising that Benjamin Boyet would block his progression, he made the fateful, but in France often rudimentary, decision to adopt the No 9 shirt.

His swift rise was illustrated by his 2008 breakthrough; he made his Six Nations debut, as a 19-year-old, before first lining out for the U-20s, who he also captained in that campaign.

That rise convinced Clermont to invest in his services – then assistant, now current Leinster coach, Joe Schmidt and he remain fierce mutual admirers of the other's work – and he hasn't disappointed, helping them to a long-awaited French title and, perhaps this season, a convincing breakthrough in Europe.

An ever-present at scrum-half during France's 2010 Grand Slam, he is utterly ubiquitous, featuring in every one of France's last 37 Test matches and their last 20 Six Nations games.

That doesn't mean he has eluded the clutches of some eccentric coaching quirks, from Marc Lievremont's baffling World Cup switches to incumbent Philippe Saint-Andre's decision to bench him for the desultory opening two games of this campaign.

"Philippe must have had his reasons for picking him on the bench in previous matches," offers a confused England assistant Mike Catt.

"But Parra has proved he is exceptional at controlling a game. With him in their side, they are capable of doing whatever they want to do."

Parra, presumably, will be one of the first names penned on the team-sheet this week.

"I was biding my time," says Parra of his stint on the bench, to where he was once more dimly consigned in Twickenham just when it seemed his side were set to pounce.


"But had I been on the bench for the England game, I would still have tried to bring something to the team, to contribute one way or another.

"There's competition, but being a part of the squad is already a great opportunity, even if we all want to start each and every game. I just kept working, on my skills, my understanding of the game."

Anyone who loves their rugby wants to see him permed with Francois Trinh-Duc once more; last year, the pair overtook Pierre Berbizier and Franck Mesnel as the longest-serving French Test half-back partnership.

Everyone except Ireland, of course.

For they know only too well that the 5'11", 12st Parra, the man who – allegedly – smashed Jonathan Sexton's jaw on club duty three seasons ago, is more than capable of breaking their hearts.


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