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


When Connacht announced they had signed Craig Clarke, the eyes of their supporters must have lit up. It was a statement of intent. Here was a co-captain of the Chiefs’ back-to-back Super 15, a player of real stature and pedigree, and what’s more he has signed up for three years. That was a statement of intent by him.

Prior to this year’s Super 15 final victory over the Brumbies, the New Zealand Sky Sports commentator Grant Nesbitt said of Connacht’s new recruit: “Craig Clarke really has been the heart and soul of the Chiefs in the last couple of seasons.”

So far, Connacht have not been disappointed. Captain last week for the win in Toulouse, aside from his line-out and restart expertise, he made 20 tackles – a phenomenal tally for a lock, although he is quick to point out that one of the two he missed led to a try.

Coaches and team-mates describe him as a good guy, very grounded, and pretty much what it says on the tin; a real New Zealand country type, as you’d expect from someone who hails from a farming background, a very rational type who simplifies things with clarity rather than complicating them, and is articulate if calm who as one says of him, is more “a do as I do, rather than do as I say”.

This, of course, means that when he does talk, players are inclined to listen.

So why leave? “I’d been doing the same thing for a few years. I was hitting the 30 mark. I had a real crack at making the All Blacks, and it was a huge ambition of mine, but it just felt that it wasn’t quite going to work out. Maybe I might have got a cap or two if I’d stuck around but we made a decision based on: ‘Do we want to wait around and be in limbo year in and year out? Or go and commit to something, see the world, go to another country and contribute to another club. Obviously money is a factor, playing footie in Europe at a high level. Unless you’re an All Black in New Zealand, the money is better. That’s the way it is.”

Okay, so why Connacht?

“Basically, it just panned out that way. I had a couple of offers. A French club, and there was some talk of a Japanese club, but communicating with those other places was pretty poor. It just didn’t feel that they were that keen, and Connacht were really, really keen. A lot of communication, and a lot of phone calls.

“They just showed a lot of interest and that played a big part. You can go to a place where they actually want you, they don’t just say ‘ah yea, you’ll be good on our roster’, instead they say: ‘we actually want you to come here. We see what you do and we value what you do and we think you’ll be a good fit.”

Expressed view
The Chiefs’ coach Dave Rennie expressed the view that Clarke should have played for the All Blacks. “I think New Zealand’s missed a beat there, the fact that this guy is leaving. If he had had a chance of wearing the black jersey last year he may well have stayed. He’s a big loss for us. He’s a quality man, he has a massive influence on this group. He’s demanding, he’s made real shifts in his game. We’ll miss him big time.”

Regrets, he has one, namely not making the All Blacks, but none about coming to Connacht or any other decision he’s made in a career that saw him have two years with Canterbury and the Crusaders, and one year with the Hurricanes before five years with the Chiefs in tandem with Taranaki.

As forewarned prior to half an hour in his company last Tuesday in the Sportsgroud, questions are given due consideration before Clarke answers them.

“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.

Pat Lam signed up as Connacht’s new coach as Clarke was nearing the end of his negotiations, and contacted Clarke to back up the interest from Eric Elwood and Tom Sears.

He talked to Nathan White a fair bit too, and so had a fair idea of what he was joining. It’s tougher out west, but that too would appeal to his character.

“Yea, we were aware of that, in terms of rugby results, and a little bit of that mindset that Galway is not a big city. It’s out of the way, it’s in the west, the weather is not that great, all those things,” he says smiling. “But there was also a lot of talk of Connacht people. All Irish people are very lovely but Connacht people are different. They really get in behind you, so that makes a difference.”

It has been pretty much what he expected. “Galway is a little bit different. Dublin is quite a tidy, big city. Galway is old, with the old tight streets. It’s very unique. You wouldn’t get anything like that in New Zealand. Just different things.

“Obviously Ireland in its economic state is not as well off as New Zealand, so infrastructure and dealing with hospitals is a bit behind, but what we’ve found is that people make up for that, and they’re lovely people.”

Suddenly improved
The rugby has suddenly improved too, the victory over Toulouse coming after just two wins (both against Zebre) in Connacht’s previous 10 competitive games. “Yea, very relieved that we got a good win against a quality team. It shows that we’re doing things right, and we can say that yes we are actually on the right track. We’ve got the talent, we’ve got good coaches and we’ve got the Connacht spirit, and maybe that’s something we haven’t had for a couple of weeks.”

He loves what he does. He feels privileged. “I realise I’m very lucky to make a living doing what I’m doing by playing sport.” And although he accepts that losing makes it more difficult, “I love being a pro footie player.” Most of all, he trains and plays to win.

“You prepare all week to go into battle, and sometimes you perform well but don’t win. It’s not a nice feeling, and winning is just the best thing.” Craig and Veree have been married since last January, and their first child is due in four weeks, and he is clearly here to set down roots for at least three years and leave some kind of legacy.

He likes the mix of seasoned Connacht pros, imports and home-grown youngsters. “It sort of hits home when you see one of them had a teary eye or two,” he admits of the win in Toulouse, “and it’s cool to see that.”

He understands how big last Sunday was, but is quick to add “we’re trying to install belief and we’ve done that, so there’s no reason why it can’t be done again.”

Clarke likens last Sunday to the Chiefs winning away to, say, in South Africa, and indeed he felt like he was playing with the Chiefs in that endgame.

Install real belief
Maybe it will take time to install real belief, he concedes, but either way he’s here for the long haul. He’s buying into Connacht.

“That’s when I moved before I’ve had some success, and I think part of that is just buy into it; and not just here to collect the ticket, but to contribute to a club and embrace the lifestyle and the people. And get some results.”

Bringing it back to basics, as he does.

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