Rugby: Big Ben biding his time with England

Eighteen months ago Ben Clarke was tipped as his country's next rugby union captain. Now he is not even in the starting line-up. Ian Stafford asked him why
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A few months ago he was being touted as the next England rugby captain. Today, when England name their team to face Wales in Cardiff on Saturday, Ben Clarke is likely to hear that he will end the Five Nations' Championship where he started it: sitting firmly on the replacements' bench.

In fact, if you cast your mind back a year and a half, Clarke appeared to have little competition in the battle to succeed Will Carling as England captain. The former Saracen - England pack leader, Bath stalwart and a sponsor's dream to boot - seemed to have it made.

Yet Clarke has been on the bench - and has not even made it on to the field as a replacement - for all three of England's matches so far this year. Being an England replacement, especially when you consider the sort of back-row talent now available to Jack Rowell, is no mean feat, of course. However, for a man who played 28 consecutive times for England, it is just not good enough.

"There's not much I can do except keep on playing as well as I can," is how the 28-year-old sees it. "I'm not one to shout from the rooftops that Jack Rowell should pick me. I think that can often work against you. Sooner or later my chance will come again, and when it does I have every confidence that I will take it."

It is a rainy, miserable day at Richmond, the Second Division home, by choice, of Clarke. Wearing his regulation stripey suit and cursing at the cold and the weather, Clarke recalls the dreaded telephone call every England player fears.

"I'd been picked for the first game of the season against Italy, but had to withdraw through injury," he explains. "Chris Sheasby replaced me, played well, and scored a try. Jack rightly felt he could not change a winning team. Because I was not in the Italy line-up I wasn't technically dropped for the next game, against New Zealand Barbarians.

"I was disappointed, to say the least, when I didn't regain my place against Argentina, but at least I came on as a substitute and felt I played OK. I half hoped I would, as a result, be back in the Five Nations. Then Jack telephoned. The first thing I said to him was, 'I didn't want to hear from you today'."

The telephone method is relatively new. Back in 1992, when Clarke made his England debut, the team was announced at the hotel. "The management usually made the announcement after breakfast. Those who had been dropped, or just hadn't made it, normally received a quiet word during breakfast. We all knew that if we got through breakfast we'd be playing. If we saw them coming our way, we'd try and leave the table before they reached us. It's better now. At least you can be disappointed in private."

Clarke's upward curve changed direction in the aftermath of England's tight and unspectacular win over Wales at Twickenham last year. "I seemed to get it in the neck afterwards, especially from the media, for keeping the ball in the scrum too long. I felt my treatment was pretty unfair.

"It may not have been pretty, but it was the game plan, and to that extent I did my job well. We wanted to dominate that area and make them work. But we failed to get this across to people afterwards. For the next game, against Scotland, Dean Richards was recalled to No 8, and I was moved to blind-side flanker. What puzzled me was that we then went to Murrayfield and played an even tighter game and won. Everyone then thought the performance was fantastic. I couldn't understand the difference."

For Clarke, the downward spiral had begun. He feels now that the response to the Welsh game cost him any chance he may have had of succeeding Carling. "When everyone thought the captaincy was between Phil de Glanville, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jason Leonard and myself, I only ever saw my name in there to keep the interest and betting going," he admits. "I never thought I would get the nod." Honestly? "Honestly. Not after the Welsh game. After that it was more of a question of keeping my place in the team."

The summer move to Richmond raised a few more eyebrows, and sharpened the critics' knives. The general complaint seemed to be that Clarke had sold himself out to a Second Division side, therefore jeopardising his national place in the process, for a nice, fat wage packet. He is keen to put this right straight away.

"It was a chance to not only captain a side, but also to be a part of something from the start," he explains. "It was meeting Ashley Levett [the money behind the club] that convinced me it would be, in the long term, the right move. His vision and ambition for the club impressed me."

But he must have expected some comment on a move from the mighty Bath (well, at least last year) to a Second Division side? "Oh yes, sure, and being accused of selling out is the obvious one," he replies. "But I hope, and expect, that in a couple of years' time or so, those who criticised may change their opinions when they see where Richmond are."

He pauses for a second before adding, a little surprisingly for a man refusing to get either flustered or downcast by his change in fortune: "I'll remember those who spoke out, believe me."

What about the claim that Second Division rugby could, and arguably did for the early part of the season, affect his form? After all, playing at a place like Nottingham is not quite akin to a trip to Welford Road, is it? "No, and I'm missing playing in the First Division, and the excitement that the new professional game has brought to the top clubs," Clarke admits.

"I'm also prepared to say that my form dipped a little at the start of the season. I don't think it was down to one, single matter. I just think the combination of moving from Bath to Richmond, becoming captain of a new club, and being heavily involved off the pitch as well as on, and playing Second Division rugby, all had a part. But I'm back to my best again, and confident enough to know that Second Division rugby would not prevent me from playing at international level. After all, don't forget Scott Quinnell and Alan Bateman play for Richmond. Now they're not doing too badly are they, for Wales?"

Fair point. So what happens now? At club level Richmond top the Second Division table and, barring a sudden dip in form, can look forward to playing against the likes of Harlequins and Wasps next season. "It's not part of my pans to miss out on promotion," is how Clarke puts it. But what about England? What about the Lions? The door seems to be shut, doesn't it?

"Only for the next game," he argues. "That's all. Anything can happen. I've always been very aware that sport is never always up and up. I wouldn't go as far as to say I've been expecting a fall from grace, but I've been very wary of my career which, up to that Welsh game, could not have gone much better. They say that the odd failure never does anyone any harm. I would hope that my present exclusion from the team will only serve to improve my game and ensure that when, or if, I regain my place, I will remember that it is instantly preferable to watching England from the touchline."

Bad, then, is it? "Well, it's better than watching it at home on television," Clarke concedes. "But it's not really my idea of fun. Still, at least everyone knows I'm there and ready."

Indeed he is. Ben Clarke is pushing hard for that recall, and those keeping him out are very aware of this. It is his influence, oddly from the bench, that could result in another world-class display from the England back row on Saturday in Cardiff.