Rugby League: Clarke refuses to conform to the game's stereotype: Great Britain will look to the man with an ideal image for inspiration at Wembley on Saturday. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
IT IS a question that sometimes springs to mind when you see Phil Clarke on the field and more often when you see him off it. Is he just too good to be true? Someone so remarkably clean-cut must have a major personality defect hidden in the cupboard. If so, the cupboard is well concealed.

Rugby league can hardly believe its luck. Here he is, destined to be one of the great players of his generation, without either a trace of a chip on his shoulder or an iota of the stereotypical Northernness that, however unfairly, makes many of the sport's finest faintly risible south of Warrington.

Small wonder that the game is tempted to wheel him out as Exhibit A when its perceived enemies disparage its social tone. 'Ape-like creatures,' is it? Well, bring on Phil Clarke. He wears nice suits, talks proper, does not smoke or drink or eat chip butties. No tattoos. No dodgy, council estate haircut. He has a degree. Roll up, roll up]

It is better still that Clarke, who will play loose forward for Great Britain against New Zealand in the first Test of their series at Wembley on Saturday, is no piece of imported window-dressing. Unlike many figures in the game who have come to be thought of as well-spoken and well-educated, he did not bring those qualities with him from another code. Clarke is pure rugby league stock, even though his father, Colin, dallied with Orrell before playing as a hooker for Wigan and Great Britain.

If Clarke is worried about being typecast as the acceptable face of rugby league, it does not show. 'I think it has helped me along the way a little,' he said. 'Although it would mean nothing if I wasn't doing the business on the pitch.'

Clarke has not been harmed by the way that influential people in the game identified him at an early age as something uncannily close to the ideal image they were seeking to project. Maurice Lindsay, his former chairman at Wigan, the former Great Britain manager, and now the game's chief executive - and you do not come much more influential than that - has never made any secret that he sees him in that light.

But it would all be hollow - embarrassingly so - if Clarke did not have the ability to go with the surface lustre. Fortunately, he does, even if in a couple of recent games his performances have been worryingly below his absolute best, and this Saturday will mark another stage in his progress.

With Ellery Hanley now retired from internationals, Clarke can lay claim to the Great Britain loose forward's shirt for as long as his form holds up. Already capped 10 times at the age of 22, he has never been entirely free of the possibility of being shunted into the second row to accommodate another of Hanley's last hurrahs, a little like a gifted, natural opening batsman being shoved down the order until Gooch finally gives up.

Just as he did at Wigan two years ago, Clarke now inherits the uncontested mantle from a player for whom he retains an undiguised admiration. 'Ellery left Wigan at a good time for me, because I was just about ready to step into his job. Not that I was going to be another Ellery Hanley; I knew from an early stage that I was never going to be that. He has probably been the greatest player of all time, because he has been so outstanding in three different positions - at centre and stand-off before he switched to loose forward.

'I learnt a lot from him on the field. His attitude to playing the game was excellent. Off the field, he kept himself to himself.'

That partly explains why it meant a lot to Clarke when Hanley sought him out to compliment him after they had played together for England against Wales last season. But, for all their mutual admiration, Clarke marks a refreshing change of style from the suspicious superstar. He is at ease with his role in a way that is much more typical of rugby league.

To cap it all, he is a small businessman with prospects. His BA in Movement Science from Liverpool University, plus a large proportion of the winning bonuses that made him better paid than his professors, have been used in a human performance evaluation unit that he runs with his brother, Andrew, at a private hospital near St Helens.

So, as Sue Lawley asked someone else with hospital connections, Virginia Bottomley, on Desert Island Discs, is he just a bit too perfect to be true? Like her, he hardly thinks so, but a match-winning performance on Saturday would make it a close-run thing.

(Photograph omitted)

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