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Parker backs Scotland to improve

By Laura Coates.

Ask the newly-appointed Scotland women's head coach Gary Parker for a quick run-down of his sporting career and you'll get a good-humoured "well, where do I start?" in response. This man can, after all, lay claim to being the all-time New Zealand club soccer goal scorer, a former American football pro and the only chap to score a try against the All-Blacks in their 1993 tour of Great Britain.

A former coach with Scottish club sides Gala, Melrose and Biggar, he was also head coach of the Scotland Club International side in 2006 and part of the national U19 World Cup 2005 coaching set-up. He is a regular rugby pundit with BBC Scotland.

Parker took up the reins of the Scottish women's squad last November following former boss Jamie Dempsey's decision to step down. He and assistant coach Jared Tuoro inherited a side which finished fifth in last year's RBS Six Nations tournament, winning their only match against Italy by a scant three points before suffering a 72-3, 12-try hiding at the hands of the English on the last weekend. The Scots then had to qualify for this August's World Cup via the Fira European Championships competition last summer.

So what attracted Parker, a local director with the Royal Bank of Scotland, to take on the top job in the Scottish women's game? He said it was partly the challenge of testing his coaching experience in a different environment.

"It was probably the right place and the right time for both parties," he said. "I wasn't going to coach a senior men's side this year, I'd done 12 years and decided I would have a season out to concentrate on work. Then low and behold the women's team were looking for an international coach, and after three and a half months of sitting the season out, I was desperate to get back coaching. I spoke to the union and they offered me the job."

Parker played schools rugby for Scotland, but opted for the round ball game after he was signed by Hearts. He spent 18 months as a professional, including a stint at Berwick Rangers, before taking the opportunity to travel to Napier in New Zealand to play soccer for six months. He enjoyed it so much he was still there six and a half years later, and was even picked to line out for the New Zealand national side in a testimonial game. "I still hold the record for the most goals scored in one season, 37, and I wasn't even a very good football player!" he joked.

Arriving back in Scotland in 1991, having played no rugby for nearly eight and a half years, he worked his way back into the national squad, before following former Scottish rugby captain Gavin Hastings to the now-defunct gridiron side Scottish Claymores. "I was invited to do one of those novelty half-time kicks in goal. I arrived in, as you can imagine, among these massive American football players... this five foot six mascot person came into the pitch and kicked a field goal forty yards. After that I spent two seasons with the Scottish Claymores."

Parker's involvement in women's sport before this season amounts to coaching a few sessions of women's soccer and some involvement during his time spent working as a development officer for the Scottish Rugby Union. Not that he sees this as a problem.

"The biggest compliment you can give, getting involved with female sport, is to say 'I'm a rugby coach and I'm dealing with rugby players'. Male or female, they're just players. I coach and my job is to make them better," he said.

Even with Scotland's Six Nations losing streak over the past couple of years, Parker says he has inherited a squad full of enthusiastic players with drive and ambition, despite some disparities between individuals' playing experience and skillsets.

"The most important thing, when I walked away having done the first squad session, was knowing as a coach I was dealing with players who want to get better, and there's no greater feeling than dealing with people who want to get better," he said.

"My demands are for the level of intensity to be higher, I am looking for players to give everything they have got to get better, to be intelligent rugby players at every level.Their commitment must be massive, their fitness and strength must be high, and if their skills are not where they need to be they must work at them."

Scotland, like Ireland, have been focusing on their strength, conditioning and fitness programmes to try bridge the gap between them and the top-tier countries. Younger players are also being given their chance, such as 20-year-old back Celia Hawthorn who impressed at the pre-Christmas training weekend and match versus Ireland and who was subsequently selected for the Six Nations squad.

Parker, like other international coaches, will be using the Six Nations as a benchmarking exercise to see how his team is progressing in the lead up to this summer's World Cup. The squad will need all the time together it can muster. With a training session at the start of January cancelled due to the bad weather, so far he's had just a couple of squad sessions to size up his new charges.

Scotland has traditionally worked off its strong pack, but even here Parker wants to bring more mobility and versatility into play. "We have a good pack so we have the platform there, but hopefully what we are trying to do is move the game on a bit. I want everybody to be able to play when they get the ball. That sounds like a really simplistic statement to make, but I am looking for us to play a style of rugby every country wants to watch.

Expect Scotland to start showing off a new running game in the next couple of months. "In the Six Nations I expect us to be competitive," said Parker. "For me as a coach, I want us to offer more of a threat with the ball in hand. Some of the statistics last year weren't very kind to us with our ability to keep the ball and move the ball, but I want us to be competitive in this area."

However, despite his appetite for change, Parker is realistic about how much he can expect to bring to the Scottish side in a short time.

"You have got to have a realistic approach to how quickly things can change. Coaching, I have dealt with a lot of senior players where you can get things changed very quickly. You get a player in a club at the age of 22 or 23, and they'll have been playing for ten years. A girl of 19, 20, 21 may hve been playing for three years.

"If you set unrealistic timescales and demands, players will struggle to buy in and you will be frustrated as a coach and the while thing falls to pieces."

And with the World Cup just around the corner, what can the opposition expect from Scotland?

"The Six Nations will give us an idea of what is achievable, because apart from one training weekend in Ireland, I haven't seen the girls play a test match live. The Six Nations for me will be an opportunity to really see what we are capable of, and what we need to develop in the off season before the World Cup.

"Four years ago, Scotland finished sixth. Would you bite someone's hands off to finish in the top six this year? Everyone would."