International rugby action returns to our lives this week as Wales host Scotland in the first Autumn International, and the first game of the season before the 2019 World Cup.
Over the next 10 months Warren Gatland and his coaching staff will assess which players make the final 31-man squad for Japan, looking at individual performances and also starting to work out combinations in key areas.
There will be many debates to be had in rugby clubs, pubs and on social media over the coming year, with who partners Alun Wyn Jones, the make-up of the back three, which player gets the nod in the coveted red number 10 jersey and of course, what actually is our best back row combination, all to be looked at.
One position that is quickly being taken off the debating table though is the midfield, where Jonathan Davies has nailed down the outside centre berth as one of the best 13s in World Rugby despite having some injury problems, and inside him is a man who this time last year hadn’t even won a cap.
Hadleigh Parkes has gone from someone who perhaps wasn’t widely known outside of Llanelli in November 2017, but after a two-try salvo against South Africa on his debut last December has gone to start every Six Nations game and win two caps on the summer tour to the Americas.
Now, as when I took a look at Gareth Anscombe the other week, I unfortunately feel the need to note that there will be people out there that say Parkes should not be pulling on the red jersey as someone who qualified on residency, but his performances since making his debut should more than prove his passion in playing for Wales.
With that out of the way, it’s time to focus on what matters, his playing ability.
After years of fairly one dimensional play centred around a solid fly-half and a hard running inside centre, Wales under Warren Gatland have slowly transformed their attacking game into one that has expanded beyond a phase of hit-up and a second phase of trying to play quickly to take advantage of a disorganised defence.
Central to that has been the use of a ‘footballing 12’ replacing the incumbent for many years, Jamie Roberts. At the beginning of last Autumn it was Gloucester’s Owen Williams who fitted the bill, but he hasn’t been seen since the emergence of Parkes and falling out of favour at club level.
With his rugby education coming in New Zealand where basic handling skills and intelligent use of possession is taught before the two times table, the 31-year-old has enough experience after years spent playing Super Rugby and at domestic level in both NZ and South Africa to step in and direct an attack.
Against both Scotland in the Six Nations and Argentina in last summer’s first test he gave Rhys Patchell an arm chair ride at fly-half either by stepping in at first receiver to allow Patch to drift a bit wider into more space, or take the screen pass and change the point of attack quickly to bring the dangerous players out wide into play.
Parkes is also involved in dangerous attacks and counter attacks more often than not due to his reading of the game, placing himself in positions where he can effectively link intricate inside handling with the danger men on the wing.
His ability to see attacks panning out in front of his eyes means he can move onto the ball and add an impetus to attacks, so that where both clips may get bogged down with Ross Moriarty and Scott Williams making passes while standing still, Parkes can inject some pace and get Steff Evans moving towards the try line in the first clip.
It’s not just in his distribution though, as Parkes is a more than capable footballer and uses the game management skills he has developed well to decide that even when a counter attack might look on, when you’re in your own 22 in Twickenham and under the cosh then playing for territory is very wise.
This takes the pressure off the man in the number 10 jersey as the focal point of the direction of play, giving Wales a chance to correct a decision to play from deep when the kick is a better option.
Where Parkes differs from someone like Owen Williams though, is that he has the added dimension of physicality in his game.
Although not the quickest player there has ever been, Parkes is a real danger with ball in hand thanks to both his power, just look at the way he sits down the Argentinian defender in the first clip, and the footwork that he shows off in the final clip.
This makes him a player that needs to be marked by the opposition as someone who can take the ball on a crash ball line short off nine, wider off the first receiver and be missed out but take one or two defenders out of the game with the likes of Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams and George North benefitting from the space that creates.
As an attacker is got close to a complete skillset, especially for what Wales are looking for from their inside centre as the attacking game evolves, but 12 is also a key position as a defensive leader, with Jamie Roberts having led the side from there without the ball so effectively for many years.
Fortunately the term ‘tenacious tackler’ was designed for Hadleigh Parkes, who has an eye to pick up runners and brilliantly manages to turn over the Argentinian player on the crash ball line in the final clip. Especially with the ball carrier targeting his weaker left shoulder.
It’s the second clip that is the key one to watch though as he changes his body position as Scotland run the screen pass but instead of blitzing his opposite number, Parkes holds his ground and keeps Steff Evans alongside him.
As a result there’s no disjointed nature to the defensive line and Parkes can drift to cut down any space that Scotland may have spotted and make the tackle to stop a dangerous attack.
There are players who may well have something to say about the inside centre spot over the next few months, Scott Williams and Owen Watkin amongst them, while Jamie Roberts is still putting in the work at Bath, but as things stand it’s difficult to look past Hadleigh Parkes.
He may have been born on the other side of the world, but when he’s orchestrating the red jerseys in attack and defence he’s as Welsh as any Man of Harlech.