Buying into Connacht way of doing things
New Zealand’s loss is turning out to be Connacht’s gain as Craig Clarke settles in nicely
“I’m happy with the decisions I have made. The regrets that I would have would be that while I was younger that I wasn’t more consistent in my performances. I think that’s ultimately why I didn’t become an All Black. If I’d done that and I performed better at a younger age – in my early and mid 20s – then things would have been different.”
Clarke was born into the game, his father Brian having played as a lock at provincial level with Wairarapa Bush, with whom he played against the 1977 British & Irish Lions. Clarke junior, the youngest brother to three sisters, took up the game at six with his home town club Masterton Red Star, before his parents, Brian and Bev, sold up the family dairy farm in Wairarapa and bought a sheep and pig farm in Gisborne.
He enjoyed growing up on a farm, “out in the wide open spaces on the hills. It was very enjoyable.” It’s something he and his wife Veree, whose family also had a dairy farm in Taranaki, will return to one day.
Gisborne Boys High School is a noted rugby playing school, which also produced Rico and one of his Toulouse opponents, Hosea Gear, who was in the same year and team.
“When I was in sixth form, at 16/17, we came third in New Zealand, and it’s a big deal to make the top four. In other years we were competitive. It’s a smaller school, away from everything, quite rural, and a lot of Maori kids, and we were always the underdogs against the big city teams.”
Scholarship to play
So began a trend, albeit after taking up a scholarship to play with Canterbury and study at Canterbury University, completing a bachelor of science and geology degree.
He played for Canterbury in 2005 and 2006, and also playing three games for the Crusaders, making their full squad in 2006, before being dropped back to the wider group in 2007, and took up Colin Cooper’s offer to play with Taranaki and the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes made the Super 14 semi-finals and Clarke played 13 times, yet Coooper rang Clarke to explain that he could only “protect” two locks, with Clarke ranked behind Jason Eaton and Jeremy Thrush. “Meantime, the Chiefs were looking for a lock and the next thing I get a phone call saying: ‘you’re going to the Chiefs’,” recalls Clarke with a chuckle. “That’s how it worked at the time.”
He settled quickly. “Really good rugby community. It suited me. Even though it’s based in Hamilton, it’s quite a rural feel to the team. It’s not a big city team.”
In his first year with the Chiefs, 2009, they made their first final, albeit losing 61-17 to the Bulls in Pretoria. Two lean years followed, whereupon the arrival of Rennie and Wayne Smith, along with some new players such as Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Cruden and Brodie Retallick, transformed the franchise.
High tempo rugby
The Chiefs were synonymous with a highly potent, high tempo brand of rugby, and an ability to strike from deep, but it was founded on defence. “We defended very, very well. I think stats wise we had the ball for the least amount of time but we scored the most tries. We made a lot of tackles.”
The two triumphs were very different. “The first time around we were a little bit in awe of what we had done. There was a little more pressure second time around I guess. But in the same way we had to beat the Crusaders in the semi-finals, and both those games were like it was in Toulouse, we were defending at the end of both games.”
“The finals were very different. The Sharks in 2012, we had a good lead and we could enjoy the run-in. But we were behind against the Brumbies and it wasn’t until very late in the game that we got the lead, so it was a bit more relief against enjoying the moment.” In addition to those two titles with the Chiefs, Taranaki won the Ranfury Shield in 2012.