Connacht captain Craig Clarke on ‘cloud nine’ this week

Heineken Cup quarter-final spot up for grabs

Connacht captain  Craig Clarke

Connacht captain Craig Clarke

Fri, Jan 17, 2014, 01:00

Connacht captain Craig Clarke, normally a self-effacing Kiwi bloke, confesses he is on “cloud nine” at present.

Not only is he leading his new club into its final pool match with a quarter-final spot up for grabs, but he is also celebrating the birth in Galway of his first child.

“It certainly adds another dimension to your life, changes your perspective and I am on cloud nine a little bit,” the former Super 15 winning captain confesses.

Although he missed last weekend’s win over Zebre due to a neck injury, it also coincided with the birth of daughter Isabella, which allowed him to spend more time at home.

This week, however, his focus returned to Connacht’s Heineken Cup fixture on Saturday – a challenge Clarke equates with his experience with the Chiefs in New Zealand.

“It’s like the run home in Super rugby when a game can be riding on something like home advantage,” he says.

“In this case there is a fair bit riding on this game because we need to win to play further in the competition. Having experienced that, you get a taste for it and want to do it again.”

While Connacht are entering new territory in Allianz Park, having never been in contention for a quarter-final place at this juncture in the competition, Clarke’s experience and calming influence is regarded as vital in helping Connacht’s youngsters play the game, not the occasion. But, he says, it is all about preparation.

‘Enjoy the occasion’
“It’s about getting things right in training week, being as clear as you can before the game and, if that goes according to plan, then you can enjoy the occasion more and not be overawed by everything and bogged down by what you are meant to do. You can say, ‘yeah, this is pretty cool and I am going to play well’.”

Although Clarke took over the Connacht captaincy partway through the season, it is a role he enjoys.

“It was a little strange that I hadn’t been here long, but I enjoy being a leader and I put my hand up to do the role when it was made available. The other leaders in the squad are supportive and are still leading.”

In a pack that has provided a consistent platform for Connacht’s young backs, Clarke stands out for his line-out organisation, but he is still striving to improve.

‘A little inconsistent’
“I am reasonably happy with how things are going in my own game – a little disappointing that I am doing some good things, but maybe just a little inconsistent – a missed tackle here or there, some good ruck work and then let myself down with one or two ineffective things, so there are always things to work on. However I am pretty happy with how the set pieces are going. I enjoy being part of a forward pack that is certainly not beaten, and we get on top of a few teams.”

The line-out, he says has been “chugging away not too bad. Dan [ McFarland] will have another good line-out plan for us this week and, if we execute that, we will have our fair share of ball.”

However, in Saracen’s Steve Borthwick, Clarke knows Connacht are up against one of the best in the business. “Everything revolves around him – he’s their go-to man and he is a very smart line-out caller – one of the top guys I have come across in my time. We just have to be organised. They are obviously very physical, so at times we like to drive, we are going to have to get that right, and when we look to play, we have to win some good ball for our backs – hence preparing well and buying into the plan so when we run out onto the pitch, we can be really focused, but enjoy the challenge.”