Clarke open to the new dawn

Rugby union enters unknown territory as Bath's England forward embraces a professional state of mind; Stephen Brenkley meets the Bath forward keen to build on the game's best traditions
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The Independent Online
IT WAS both a surprise and a relief to learn that on the afternoon of Saturday 16 September Ben Clarke will attend a wedding. In the tricky, uncharted, but positively professional territory that rugby union is about to enter, this is precisely the sort of social frippery that Will Carling suggested the other day would be denied to big-time players. The England captain seemed to suggest that rugby's place in their pecking order would have to be something like first, last and always.

Players do not come much bigger time than Clarke, but for him there is no question of playing in the Courage League match for Bath against Gloucester and thus missing the happiest day of his sister's life. "It didn't take me at all long to ask for the match off," he said. "Either I upset our club manager, Jon Hall, or my mum, and believe me there wasn't a contest."

Given the pre-eminence in the game of both Bath and the relaxed, rampaging Clarke it would be ludicrous to suggest that his absence indicates an amateurishness in approach. Perhaps it offers hope that the new era will not entirely lose sight of the past, though it is probably as well that the marriage ceremony was not arranged for the afternoon England play South Africa.

The wedding apart, Clarke does not envisage that his approach to the game is about to be revolutionised. He views professionalism less as money in the bank than as a state of mind, which does not mean he will be refusing the cash, if there is any.

"Quite honestly, although I've been an amateur in status I've always taken a professional view of my rugby," he said. "A lot has always been expected in terms of time and commitment from the players at Bath and people have been happy to give it. That's why we've done as well as we have."

Clarke, like many other players, still seems somewhat uncertain about the turn of recent events. He is delighted but astonished that the International Board has abolished amateurism, yet he is wary of pay for play and has no intention himself of becoming a full-time professional. He will continue to work two days a week for National Power and train both with and separately from his Bath team-mates. Although he is unsure about the game's ability to reward players directly he is a strong advocate of the swift introduction of the European League, which he realises will demand almost permanent commitment, and therefore payment.

"The administrators have been bold. Now they must get it right from here for the whole of the game, set up a different structure and a system, not just leave it as it is. Maybe there'll have to be a day when some players are full- time, I don't know. At first anyway everybody will get the same."

Such doubts typify the uncertainties that surely lie ahead. While there may be sufficient cash around to pay only a few, it does not follow that employers will continue their traditional generosity in giving time off to those playing a sport which, by its own determination, is no longer amateur.

If there is an understandable element of confusion in this, Clarke is firm about the type of game he wishes both to play in and see played as the new dawn breaks. The ball has to be passed and run with as a matter of routine, not exception. That is the only way, he believes, that rugby union can appeal to a wider audience - as well as, it should be said, to Ben Clarke. The examples of New Zealand rugby union and Wigan rugby league are the standards that Clarke aspires to and he conveyed the impression that, in style as well as in results, he would like England to emulate one and Bath the other. The way Clarke already plays, ready to run at opposition forwards, keeping the game alive, persuades one that rugby union forward play does not have to be a sophisticated version of hide and seek.

"I think there is so much that can happen now. When the European competition gets started here I can see so much interest being created. Look at how towns are gripped when their football team has a chance of getting into Europe. I can see that happening with us if we do it the right way. Imagine having Toulouse or one of the Italian clubs coming here regularly."

Clarke lives only 400 yards from Bath's training ground and still, thankfully, likes a pint occasionally, therefore sustaining another of the game's traditions. Indeed his enthusiasm for the game remains huge - it is, dare one say it, almost the enthusiasm of the dashing amateur. Bath's stylish victory over Wasps in last season's Pilkington Cup Final is a particular source of delight. The match and the performance of both sides was overshadowed because it was the day on which Will Carling was sacked as England captain, but Clarke thinks it is one of the best games he has played in - it proved that an important contest could also be free-flowing. And if you did not know better, you might think he had enjoyed England's World Cup match against New Zealand, for in the second half, when they were no longer afraid of defeat because they had already been soundly beaten, England ran majestically.

At 27, Clarke, was one of the very few England players who returned from the World Cup with reputation not only intact but enhanced. Now he is determined to win the double playing a more open game. Whether the relentless extension of Bath's success would be good for the game or not he laughingly pretended not to care but he acknowledged that the best players in the game will end up at fewer clubs. Whatever, he is convinced that the spirit of rugby will survive.

"What shouldn't be forgotten," Clarke said, "is that most of the players still have a tremendous amount of respect for the game and each other. That isn't going to go away."