Clarke's rise down under

Owen Slot explains why an exile is now equipped to tame the Australians
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The Independent Online
THREE weeks ago, Phil Clarke, the England loose forward, returned from Australia for the World Cup, and he has hardly stopped talking about his new home ever since. Indeed, he is so pleased to have left Wigan that he has had to rein in his enthusiasm. He realised just how valuable the move had become in July when a game against Manly provided him with emotions that he had almost forgotten existed.

Manly were the league leaders, the glamour team unbeaten in 12 matches. Clarke's team, the Sydney City Roosters, were the unfashionable underdogs, strangers to success. No one gave the Roosters a chance. Having gone an early try down, however, the Roosters staged a remarkable comeback, snatched the lead before half-time and spent the final 40 minutes defending it. "It was sensational," Clarke said, explaining that it was the simple joy of victory from which he had become estranged. "I hadn't had that feeling for a very long time."

Compare this to his last game for Wigan a month and a half earlier. It was the Premiership final at Old Trafford, Wigan scored 11 tries in a 69-12 victory over Leeds, supposedly the second best team of the season, and completed the grand slam. And where was the glory in that? "Not many players, apart from one or two of the young ones, were even excited," Clarke explained, "because Wigan don't win, it's just that they don't lose. When you play in a final and at the end of the game you've got more points than the others, you think, 'Thank God we didn't lose. Thank God we weren't the team that blew it.' It's just a relief."

It is, then, a different Phil Clarke that we will see at kick-off against Australia on Saturday. For a start, we will actually see him - the headgear which protected him from being knocked out has gone, despite the protestations of his mother. But more importantly, Clarke has rediscovered the meaning of victory.

The two Wigan games he has seen have convinced him further that he was right to go. "The Wigan lads are so bored," he said. "I've got carried away once or twice talking about Sydney," he said.

And then he got carried away. He lives 50 yards from Bondi beach and during the summer it is on Bondi beach that training will take place. "It was turning spring when I left and the beach was just starting to take off and the lads were getting so excited." The winter's not bad either; they train morning and afternoon and in between they get a ferry over to Manly for lunch and leisure in the arcade and on the dodgems. His contract is for another two years, but he may well stay more, though he says he wants to play in as many countries as possible and he would be delighted to see a merging of the two rugby codes in order for this to happen. "Rugby union's all over the place. There's Japan, isn't there? It's 68 countries who play rugby union, isn't it?"

This is all delivered with the enthusiasm of one who has just discovered the world, eyes wide to translate his disbelief at what he has found, and once the World Cup is over, when it will be the closed season, Clarke will be back to check it is all still there. Before that he has organised two weeks' of coaching in Soweto - "Life in the game has been very good to me," he said. "I thought it would be good to coach people who haven't been as lucky as me."

Before that, of course, there is that World Cup, "though the problem is no one knows anything about it". This lack of public interest is a problem that Phil Larder, the England coach, addressed at a team meeting last week. "He said that there were a lot of people in the room who had won a lot of things, perhaps everything in the English game. The only thing we'd never won was a Test series against Australia and a World Cup.

"That really hit home. And as a player, if no one turns up at Wembley, I've got to put that out of my mind." And which would be more important, the World Cup or a Test series win over the Kangaroos? "Well, it's the same thing really because, even though we haven't said it, we think that it's between us and them."

The England set-up, he believes, is promising. "Phil Larder's doing a good job. I'm impressed with what we've done so far - quality work." And if there is ever a time when the Kangaroos can be beaten, then it would appear to be now. The civil war between the Australian Rugby League and the Super League continues to rage and a number of the senior Australian players have been left behind.

Clarke, though, insists that the absence of the Super League superstars may be an irrelevance. "Over there, they play hard, tough games week in, week out. We don't have that here - Wigan only have to peak for 20 or 30 minutes per game," he said. "Playing at this higher level is one of the advantages I've had, but it also means that the players they are bringing aren't that different to those who lost out. We're just not particularly used to names like Steve Menzies and Nick Kosef, yet in ability, they're not that different. For their victories over New Zealand recently, there were young lads thrown into the team who would not otherwise have been picked. Perhaps they used that as motivation, they did very well."

It could be, though, that politics has made its intrusion into the English camp. Clarke was vice-captain of Great Britain last season, captain even for one game. Vice-captain this time round? It was quietly announced last week that his close friend Denis Betts would fill the post. Could this be related to the fact that Clarke is an ARL player while Betts, and the rest of the England squad, have fallen on the Super League side of the divide? Clarke couldn't possibly comment, though he does admit that it will provide extra motivation - yet another example of how, having played with the Australians, he is now better equipped to beat them.