Rugby Union: Clark taking off for the heady heights: Steve Bale on Chris Clark, the exciting England rugby union newcomer who is gathering speed

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CHRIS CLARK has come such a long way in such a short time that he can still scarcely believe it. Until this season he quite deliberately sidestepped senior rugby, thinking that to have taken the plunge would have put him in way over his head.

Yet here he is a few months later chasing the Divisional Championship with the South- West against the Midlands at Leicester tomorrow to round off an unimaginable week in which he was also named in the England squad. Clark's new year will thus be spent training in Lanzarote rather than at home in Marlborough, Wiltshire, where both parents are teachers at the renowned public school and, naturally, Clark was a pupil.

'After reading it on teletext it was complete elation - followed almost immediately by total panic,' he said. As it happens, Clark is perfectly comfortable in all white: his battle honours include the recent Australians while playing for Swansea, otherwise known as the All Whites.

Clark, 21, is an English prop who has made his name in the unforgiving school of Welsh club rugby - which is probably why he seems like the man from nowhere even though he has played for England at nearly every junior level and has four under-21 caps to his credit.

But the events of this season have happened despite, rather than because of, his personal inclination. Clark is a final-year economics undergraduate at University College Swansea and a former captain of the university rugby club (for whom he played at Twickenham in the 1991 UAU final). Swansea, the club that is, had been after him for a long time.

'I went down for training once last season but, after playing nothing but college rugby, found the whole thing a bit much,' he said. At the time he was 20, an age when the ambition of most young players of this calibre is burgeoning. Not Clark. It was as much as Mike Ruddock, the greatly admired Swansea coach, could do even to get him to pre-season training last summer.

'I still felt it was rather high for me. I hadn't played any serious 'men's' rugby before and to break into one of the top teams in Wales seemed a bit ambitious. If Mike Ruddock hadn't been so persuasive I would probably have gone to a lesser club and started at a much lower level.'

But for an ankle injury, Clark would have made Swansea's Canadian tour in August. Even having committed himself, he did not break into the team until the season was well in progress. Eventually he had a debut 40 minutes as replacement against Neath, a novel experience, and just this one look was more or less all it took for Ruddock to be persuaded.

Clark appeared in Swansea's next three league fixtures and was then a member of the front row who played such a large part in the epic defeat of the Wallabies ('I felt I was hanging on for dear life'). Before the interruption of the Divisional Championship he had made all of seven appearances to add to two, in an earlier incarnation, as a replacement for Rosslyn Park.

'He is very strong, technically very, very good in the scrummage, and he has a superb attitude,' Ruddock enthused. 'I find with some of the Welsh lads who have been capped at junior levels that they begin to expect things but I'm delighted to say Chris isn't like that at all.

'He has a sense of wonder about him, a feeling that he has been given this unexpected opportunity, is really thankful for it and has to make the most of it. It's quite refreshing. Chris still has a sort of innocence about him.'

Not for much longer, one suspects. Ruddock was so taken with his wide-eyed loose head that he wanted the South-West to release him from the divisionals, but there was never a chance. Instead of playing for Swansea in the climactic First Division encounter which they lost at Cardiff, Clark was furthering his England prospects in the South-West's big win over the North, a process that continued against London as it undoubtedly will against the Midlands.

'We were desperate for him to play,' Ruddock said. Which would have put Clark in an invidious position had it not been obvious that he had to put country before club. 'When Swansea asked if I was available, I said I would love to play as long as they cleared it with someone high up in the England or South-West set-up and as long as it wouldn't damage my chances.'

Clearance inevitably denied, he set about the North's Martin Whitcombe and then London's wiliest of front-row campaigners, Jeff Probyn, late of England. 'I had played against Jeff once before, when the Students played England before the World Cup, and I thought I held my own a lot better this time. I wouldn't say I coped well but things could have gone a lot worse.'

What with the divisionals, Lanzarote and the representative calls he can expect in 1993, Clark's attachment to Swansea is bound to loosen. Ian Buckett, another immensely promising loose head, will be coming back to the club from Oxford and next autumn Clark intends making the opposite journey to do a one-year MSc course in development economics.

'I imagine I'll have to look to be playing my rugby in England from then on because playing in Wales probably wouldn't help in selection,' he said, though the evidence of the past few weeks suggests otherwise.

'I've had a fantastic time at Swansea,' he added. 'Playing for them was a huge step, absolutely vital for me. I was getting stale playing college rugby. They are a great club and I love it there.

'I thought playing against the Australians would be the pinnacle of the season for me. There were rumours that the South-West would pick me but at the time I thought it was all getting a bit out of hand. I still can't quite credit that all this has happened.'

And now the 1995 World Cup is beginning to beckon. It would be enough to turn the heads of some young men but not Clark, who has a pleasant line in self-deprecation and in any case is kept on terra firma by his father, Alan.

'My dad is always warning that it could all collapse around me at any moment,' Clark said. 'His classic line is: wait until you're on the plane.' In fact he seems already to have taken off.