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Commonwealth Games

Commonwealth Games 2014: Clarke on a crusade for English gold after swapping training tips with All Blacks

Clarke is eyeing a ground-breaking English gold medal on Scottish soil

Jade Clarke has become accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the giants of New Zealand sport.

The Mancunian, who leads out England’s netballers for the opening match of their Commonwealth Games campaign against Wales today, plays in the ANZ Championship for the Tactix.

They happen to be the second-biggest sporting deal in Canterbury: behind the mighty Crusaders – Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Co.

“Sometimes the Crusaders will come and train on our court and use our facilities,” Clarke said.

It conjured visions of the great All Blacks pivoting and shooting for goal in the style of an overgrown, tattooed St Trinian’s squad – black-skirted perhaps, but minus Joyce Grenfell as a flapping, fretful coach.

“Actually, they come on court to do a warm-up session, just to get their legs moving,” Clarke added. “Then they use the weights room. We all stay around to keep an eye on their sessions. It’s fun.

“Canterbury is a really nice place to play sport because it’s quite small and there’s not a lot of distraction. There’s a real community feel. Everyone there knows what’s going on with the sport.

“Rugby and netball are the two major sports in New Zealand. Every time we have a club game, it’s on the back pages of the papers.

“Netball is such a well-respected sport in New Zealand. Everyone knows the netball players. They’re household names. It would be great to build towards that in England.”

It might help if the England team that Clarke is captaining in the absence of the injured regular skipper Pamela Cookey were to stop the Silver Ferns from collecting the gold medal at Glasgow 2014. New Zealand have won the last two Commonwealth titles.

Australia won the two before that. Only the two trans-Tasman rivals have contested the gold-medal match at a Commonwealth Games. England took bronze in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, in Melbourne in 2006 and in Delhi four years ago.

This time the England team and their Canterbury player are on a crusade to bring an end to the Antipodean monopoly.

“Yeah, we want to be on that podium, but we want to do something that the England netball team’s never done before,” Clarke said. “We want to get to that final. Getting the opportunity to win gold is a huge motivation for us. We’re very much taking one game at a time, but that’s what we’re striving for: getting to that final and getting gold.”

Given that only New  Zealand and Australia have been outright world or Commonwealth champions  (Trinidad & Tobago tied with both of them for the world title in 1979), an English gold on Scottish soil would be a ground-breaking achievement in the global scheme of things.

“It would be a huge deal in terms of history,” Clarke acknowledged. “It would be something that’s not been done before. But in terms of what we expect from ourselves, it wouldn’t be a huge deal because we feel we’re ready for this.

“We’ve beaten both New Zealand and Australia in the last four years but we haven’t done it at a major championships. That’s the next step that we’ve got to take:  to do it in the pressure situation of a major championships.”

It is likely to be a major help that the England class of 2014 have players who have been mixing it regularly at club level with the very best of the Kiwis and Aussies. Geva Mentor plays for Melbourne Vixens and is regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world. Shooter Jo Hartem turns out for Waikato Magic.

Clarke herself has spent three years playing in the ANZ Championship: for Waikato Magic, Northern Mystics and now Canterbury Tactix. Next season she moves across the Tasman to join the New South Wales Swifts.

“I think it’s great at this stage of my career that I can mix things up and go over there half the year and then come back to England,” Clarke said. “It keeps things really fresh.

“I feel like I’m learning even more now than I did in the first half of my career. It’s a real advantage that you’re playing those top players week in, week out. You get to know their game inside out.”

At 30, Clarke is the stalwart in a squad which includes plenty of youthful talent – notably the Corbin twins, Sasha and Kadeen, famed for their celebratory backflips, and for being cousins of the international sprinter Asha Philip.

“We were gutted when our regular captain, Pamela Cookey, got injured,” Clarke said, “but on the positive side that’s a chance for the younger players to really step up and show what they can do. This is their time now.”

It is also Clarke’s time. Subject to selection, today’s game will be her 99th for England. Tomorrow’s, against Australia, could be her 100th.

“Yeah, if I play in both games, I would get my 100th against Australia,” Clarke reflected. “It’s nice that it’s such a big game because that comes before any pressure of it being my 100th cap.

“It’s also good that my mum would be there to see it. That’s the positive thing about it being a UK Games. All of our family and friends can travel up to support us.

“We’ve had nothing but a warm welcome in Scotland so far.”