As one of the senior pro's at the Ospreys, Sonny Parker has been passing on some of his considerable experience to the new wave of backs coming through at the region.
The centre, who became an Ospreys centurion when he completed his 100th appearance for the region at the end of last season, has been working on a one-to-one basis with some of the younger centres in the squad, such as Jonathan Spratt and Gareth Owen, and most recently, Ashley Beck.
A native New Zealander, Parker has proven to be a great servant to Welsh rugby since first arriving in the country in 1999, gaining 31 caps for his adopted nation. It is at the Ospreys though, where he has had the biggest impact since signing for the region in the summer of 2004, making 116 appearances to date and scoring 24 tries.
Speaking about his mentoring role with the younger Ospreys, Parker says that it’s something that has grown naturally during his time with the region, as he has matured into one of the senior players in the group. His desire to see younger players developing, combined with his wealth of experience at the top level of the game has seen him growing into a role that now sees him giving up a considerable amount of his own time to assist others in the squad. He commented:
“I’ve taken some of the younger boys under my wing a little bit. With any young player starting out, you want them to do well and to improve in what they do, so you want to help them. When I was starting out, it was very old school, and it was a hard environment for young players. I wouldn’t say it was sink or swim, but it was definitely the case that if you made mistakes it wouldn’t be constructive criticism that you can learn from that came your way, it would be negative.
“I’m completely the opposite way. If I see someone is struggling, I want to help them, reassure them, and make them realise that everyone makes mistakes. What is important is they learn from it. You have to be positive around the boys, on the pitch, in training, wherever you are in the Ospreys environment.
“This is what, my 10th season in Wales? In that time, I don’t think there’s really been that many centres come through. Halfway through my career, I did think to myself where are all the centres? I found that quite difficult to understand, coming from the southern hemisphere where there are guys coming through all the time. I want young guys to come through the ranks, whatever their position.”
According to Parker, while he is happy working with youngsters who play in all positions around the field, naturally, he has a connection with those who play in the centre position. Despite the obvious threat to his own place in the starting XV from the up and coming centres, he says that what is most important is that the Ospreys grow a bigger pool of players to select from, even if it means that he loses out to one of the youngsters:
“I don’t try and single anyone out. If anyone wants any help, they know that I’m available, but naturally, centres will feel more comfortable working with me and vice versa. I’m certainly not an expert in the requirements of playing at prop so I won’t be rushing to tell anyone how to do that, but I can certainly still help with feedback or whatever, if they think it’s appropriate.
“If someone comes through to challenge my place and does better than me, then everyone wins. It’s definitely good for the Ospreys in the long term. Competition is key as it helps drive everybody forward. I think over the last few years, the development system at the Ospreys has certainly changed the scene in terms of young players coming through, the position is certainly a lot healthier than it was, and anything I can do to help, I will.
“At a lot of clubs, they are scared to keep the youngsters in there, unless they are absolutely outstanding. The thing is, unless you are playing regularly, it can be easy to cast someone aside and say that they aren’t going to make it, based on just a few appearances, where perhaps because of their lack of experience, or their confidence is low, they didn’t really do themselves justice. Not everyone bursts onto the scene at 18 or 19, you can be older, in your mid twenties before really starting to come through. It’s about seeing potential in someone and doing what you can to help them along to hopefully fulfil that.”
Parker acknowledges that moving into the Ospreys senior squad can be quite a daunting experience for a raw youngster, but he says that it is a challenge they should be excited about. He added:
“A lot of younger guys can find it intimidating coming into the environment. There’s a lot of experienced boys, internationals and quite a few in the Lions squad so it’s understandable, but they shouldn’t feel like that, they should be excited as it’s an opportunity to be an Osprey. They’ve already shown that they have the ability to get that far, so it’s important that they have the assistance they need. They need to keep doing what they are good at, and learn from those around them in the areas where they need to learn. You don’t go out there to muck up, but it happens, you’ll never play the perfect match, so the attention to detail and the work that you do to continue improving is very important.
“What a lot of the younger players don’t realise when they come into the group is that it’s not the things that they are good at that will determine how far they go in the game, it’s the weaknesses that they have. You will always have weaknesses in your game right through your career; no one is the perfect player. They need to understand that. What makes a difference is the work that you do on those parts of your game, the attention you pay to improving yourself.”
Head Coach Sean Holley hailed Parker for the work he does away from the pitch, paying tribute to his professionalism and loyalty to the region:
“There’s no doubt about it, Sonny is a very loyal player who has contributed enormously to the Ospreys achievements since he joined us six years ago and who is an extremely dedicated professional. He is well liked and respected by his fellow players, and the coaches, and while his record as a player speaks for itself, what he does away from the pitch is even more significant.
“During his time with us, Sonny has matured into a mentor for the younger players, especially young backs. We have asked him to cast an eye over players like Andrew Bishop and James Hook in the past and he has done a tremendous job. More recently he has been working with Ashley Beck, Gareth Owen and Jonathan Spratt. This could include him going through the technical aspects of their previous game on the Sportscode software, or socially, spending time with them to discuss game plans, attack/defence systems or lifestyle commitments?.
“This extra responsibility has allowed him to continue developing as a player himself, despite his status as one of the senior professionals. He realises that being seen as a role model by others in the group means that he is more accountable for his own performances, and that he need to be more prepared for activities in the training environment, and this has been reflected by improved performance levels.
“I would say that Sonny is my go-to man as a senior back. He orchestrates the first phase defence with Marty Holah, and is my pulse of the backline in terms of how they are mentally and how well prepared they are for games and training, which is a clear sign of the regard we hold him in at the Ospreys."