Rugby Union: Clarke aims for paradise regained

'Professionalism has brought the best out of players on the pitch. It's still damned hard work'; England's gentle giant will be there when the going gets tough - again. By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
A silent cheer greeted the announcement of the first England squad of the winter. One for the good guys. Or to put it another way, one hurrah for Ben Clarke, who is in grave danger of bringing rugby union a decent name despite the universal attempts of the powerbrokers to dismember his sport. Clarke is the acceptable face of profess- ionalism. He eats, sleeps and dreams rugby, yet retains the qualities and demeanour of the gentleman amateur. Talking to Clarke, hearing his schoolboyish chuckle, sensing the depth of his commitment to the game, it is possible to believe that rugby really will be all right in the end. In the present climate, that is no small tribute.

At the time, Clarke was an unlikely standard bearer for the new age of professionalism. He had a good job with National Power, which allowed him, most thought, the best of both worlds: time off to play, time away from rugby to recharge his batteries. One of the mainstays of a highly successful Bath side, he doubled as England's pin-up boy, proof that cauliflower ears and a squashed nose were not necessarily the requisites for an England forward. But, not for the first time, we underestimated the man. Clarke was a professional just waiting to sign the papers. When the final hinge was broken off the doors of amateurism, Clarke was one of the first across the threshold. From Bath he moved to Richmond, for a reported pounds 1m five- year deal which stunned the suits at Twickenham. What was the man thinking of? Leaving the Premiership for the second division. And all for the corporate shilling?

There is no proof, nor will Clarke ever reveal his inner thoughts, but good judges felt he paid a higher price than was strictly deserved for dropping out of sight. Pour encourager les autres. The England management did not want all their best forwards disappearing to tinpot leagues at the drop of a pound coin or million. Clarke was widely criticised for putting his England place in jeopardy. If he had known how desolate and windswept the wilderness, he might have thought twice, but, sitting back in Paradise Two, the restaurant he owns just round the corner from the old Richmond ground, the feeling of justification is easily apparent, however modestly expressed. "Told you so" is not a phrase readily available in Clarke's vocabulary. His smile says it all.

"On reflection, the move did affect my England place, but I was back in the Premier League the following season and I was still out of the squad. Yes, it did test my patience and it was very frustrating at times, but I never lost confidence in my ability and I knew that if I got the opportunity, I could prove myself." He pauses, then adds. "Again." Again, that's the critical point, the testimony to a strength of character many felt Clarke lacked.

The emergence of Tony Diprose, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio, allied to the resurgence of Neil Back and Tim Rodber, made the England back row as hard a club to penetrate as the MCC. From being an automatic choice, Clarke dropped on to the waiting list, for reasons he can still not entirely pinpoint. His first season at Richmond was not his finest, he will admit, and there was a perception that his ball-handling was not quite slick enough for the fluid post-professional game. More likely, Clarke, gentle giant that he is, did not put himself about enough. "I've always believed in doing things not talking about them," he says. "I read a lot about players trying to influence coaches to select them, but it's all about how you play."

England's loss was Richmond's gain. Clarke put heart and soul into bringing a semblance of reality to the vision of Ashley Levett, the new owner. The notion that professionalism would simply mean putting your boots on for an hour or so every day, playing on Saturdays and picking up the cheque was not one which had much appeal. "I think a lot of players would reflect that there was more to being a professional than they first thought. A lot of other responsibilities come with the job, particularly on the commercial side. At the time I came to Richmond, I didn't realise that there would be all those changes in my life.

"I knew people thought I'd only come for the money and I can't really respond to that. It's their opinion. My response now is that what has happened at Richmond is why I decided to join the club. We're fifth in the Premiership, we've moved to a new 25,000 seater stadium and we've got a superb team both on and off the pitch." That the new stadium is in Reading and shared with Reading Football Club is just one of the facts of commercial life. A crowd of 6,500 against Bedford augured well for the future.

Overlooked for the Lions, dispatched to Argentina for the winter of 1996, Clarke clung to the belief that the wheel would turn. He probably did not expect to hear the first creak on a mudheap in Hamilton's Rugby Park as England tried to regain some modicum of pride against a New Zealand second team after humiliation in Australia. Clarke was left on the bench for the First Test, relegated to umpteenth choice flanker behind Ben Sturnham and Richard Pool-Jones. The subsequent mayhem was widely predicted and once Clarke had proved his worth to Clive Woodward in Hamilton, the recall was beyond question. "The guy's an absolute diamond," Woodward said after a revitalised England performance in the Auckland Test. The All Blacks, who had always regarded Clarke as a suitable recipient of the silver fern, were perplexed at finding him in such lowly company. They had wanted to nationalise him after the 1993 Lions Tour.

Full rehabilitation, however, had to wait until the early days of this season. Clarke is by no means a certainty to start the first of England's two World Cup qualifiers, against Holland, next Saturday. Not with Dallaglio, Back, Hill and Diprose in the squad. But in the more demanding physical encounter with the rampant South Africans early next month the temptation to match Clarke with Hill and Dallaglio in a loose trio of awesome athleticism might prove irresistible. Clarke is understandably cautious. "I'm just delighted to be back in a full-strength England squad," he says. "The feel-good factor is very high, it's the right atmosphere for a national squad. But we mustn't be drawn into thinking about the South Africans. We've got to win these two World Cup games first and then carry the confidence into the next game."

Only when you ask about Clarke's debut, a victory over the South Africans at Twickenham six years ago, does the speed of change hit home. The pack that day was Teague, Winterbottom, Clarke, Dooley, Bayfield, Probyn, Leonard, Moore. Different times. "Those guys were deadly serious about their rugby, but the whole game's changed. Everyone's fitter, the skill level is higher, the tempo of the game is quicker, the speed of thought. Professionalism has brought the best out of the players on the pitch, there's no doubt about that." Only one thing has stayed much the same, Clarke reflects. "It's still damned hard work." Just as well that he loves every aching minute of it.

THE AUTUMN INTERNATIONALS

Saturday 14 November

England v Holland* (Huddersfield)

Ireland v Georgia* (Lansdowne Road)

Scotland v NZ Maoris (Murrayfield)

Wales v South Africa (Wembley)

Sunday 15 November

France v Argentina (Nantes)

Wednesday 18 November

Georgia v Romania* (Dublin)

Saturday 21 November

Ireland v Romania* (Dublin)

Wales v Argentina (Llanelli)

Scotland v South Africa (Murrayfield)

France v Australia (Paris)

Sunday 22 November

England v Italy* (Huddersfield)

Saturday 28 November

England v Australia (Twickenham)

Ireland v South Africa (Lansdowne Road)

Scotland v Portugal* (Murrayfield)

Wednesday 2 December

Spain v Portugal* (Murrayfield)

Saturday 5 December

England v South Africa (Twickenham)

Scotland v Spain* (Murrayfield)

Saturday 6 February 1999

Five Nations' Championship opens

* denotes World Cup qualifier

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