Clarkson goes from laying bricks to adding foundation to Rhinos' Wembley hopes

Back-row forward who was almost cast aside by Leeds a year ago is poised for key role in Challenge Cup final
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The Independent Online

In a few months, Chris Clarkson has gone from part-time player and bricklayer to one of the more unlikely building blocks in Leeds' Wembley-bound team.

The 20-year-old back-row forward, who is in line to play against Warrington in Saturday's Challenge Cup final, was still working with his father on porches and conservatories earlier this year after nearly being released at the end of last season.

"You have to make a decision on players at 19," says the Rhinos' chief executive, Gary Hetherington. "In the end we released 11 and Chris was very much one of that pool.

"He'd been nowhere near the first team, but our coaches, Barrie McDermott and Willie Poching, said we had to find a way of giving him another year.

"He carried on with the bricklaying and playing part-time and his commitment has been terrific."

Clarkson admits that he never expected to play in the first team this season. "I thought I'd play a bit of Academy [rugby] and that would be it," he says.

Instead, an injury crisis in March gave him a chance out of position against Wigan and he has been in and around the first team ever since, earning a full-time contract in July. "Somebody must have dropped out and I got a phone call the night before telling me I was playing in the centres against Wigan. My heart dropped a bit, but I must have done OK and I've just tried to do my best since," he says.

"He's been the find of the season for us," says his coach, Brian McClennan. "He's a terrific kid and has a great temperament and a big engine. Technically, he's very good in defence and, in attack, he's a player who can bob up and jag a try."

With Wembley selection in mind, McClennan says that his latest prodigy "has been doing himself some favours by the way he has been playing".

That all points to a remarkable double involvement for Clarkson on Saturday afternoon, as the under-12s curtain-raiser to the main event features his old school Temple Moor High.

He has been helping to coach them for their own big match against Dowdales from Barrow, although there was no rugby at the school when he was a pupil there.

His dad, Peter, a former professional with Featherstone and Wakefield, took him instead to the East Leeds club, from where he was picked up at 16 by the Rhinos.

Not that he was putting all his eggs in one basket, or even all his bricks in one hod.

"I worked in my dad's business and he was pretty lenient with me, so I worked during the day and trained Tuesday and Thursday nights. It's only recently that I've been training full-time," he says.

Even now, he likes to keep his hand in; the last brick he laid pre-Wembley was on a mate's porch extension a week ago.

"I won't be doing anything this week, obviously," Clarkson adds.

His mum, dad and various aunties and uncles will be at Wembley on Saturday, although his sister is sticking to her plan to go instead to the Leeds Festival.

Unlike them, Clarkson will not be able to watch his old school play, because he will be going through his own preparations at the time. Older Leeds fans settling into their seats however, might find some resonance in the name of Johnny Hynes, nephew of Syd Hynes, Leeds' captain at Wembley in 1971.

"I won't be able to watch, but I'll be waiting anxiously for the result," says Clarkson.

Leeds have no anxieties, on the basis of his performances this season, about throwing him into a game of this magnitude. Clarkson was a schoolboy himself when he was last at the stadium, supporting Leeds on their last appearance there, before its redevelopment, in 1999.

Now Clarkson is set to play a much more central role. "He's a lad you really want to do well, because he has shown such determination and commitment – such an appetite to learn and to do things the right way," says Hetherington. "In the end, that's more important than skill, although he's not deficient in that either."

That combination of ability and dogged desire has brought Clarkson to the brink of a Wembley debut in only his 16th senior match.

While you can take the boy out of the building site, however, you can't necessarily take the building site out of the boy.

His playing career now appears to be on firm foundations, but he also has an eye on a few corners of Headingley that could use a little attention and which he might point out to the club's chairman, himself a pillar of the building trade.

"I might have to have a word with Mr Caddick," he says – but not this week, he won't.

The Catalan Dragons have signed the former Bradford hooker, Ian Henderson, from the New Zealand Warriors on a three-year contract.

Frankie Mariano, whose neck injury caused Hull KR's Academy game against Wigan on Saturday to be abandoned, has left hospital.