Rugby Union: Clarke aims to duel for his crown

Rugby Union: Woodward's `absolute diamond' plans a leading role in the build-up to the World Cup qualifiers
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The Independent Online
MOST WORLD-WEARY cynics now accept that sincerity is the key to success - "Once you can fake that," they say, "you've got it made." Ben Clarke belongs to an increasingly rare breed of professional sportsman who, while agreeing wholeheartedly with the first half of the sceptics' maxim, angrily disowns the punchline.

Richmond's captain has never faked a performance in his life, which is why good English rugby men and true will this morning be feeling a little more upbeat than usual about their bruised and battered game.

Clarke is back in the big time, as of lunchtime yesterday; one of 26 elite players named in Clive Woodward's first full-strength England squad for some five and a half months, his re-emergence as much a testament to his depth of character as to the quality of his technique. As the national coach freely admits, some of Clarke's performances in adversity in New Zealand during the summer transcended technique altogether.

"People respect Ben because he wears his honesty on his sleeve, where everyone can see it and appreciate it for what it is," says John Kingston, who coaches him at Richmond. "He came to this club from Bath as a big name, but he lives and breathes Richmond as though he had never played anywhere else. That sort of integrity is priceless in a rugby player."

Yet five months ago his value as an international commodity was down there alongside the rouble. In fact, Clarke was history made flesh. Richmond were having an up and down sort of campaign in the Premiership, the England A team in which he had been asked to play the "Mr Experience" role had shipped 145 points in four miserably incompetent games and Woodward, in his first season as England coach, did not appear in the remotest danger of picking him for his Test squad. Sure, he made the summer tour to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but only because at least four of Woodward's preferred options took one look at the itinerary and ran a mile.

Even then, Clarke was overlooked for the opening Test against the Wallabies; a good one to miss, as it turned out, but deflating at the time. Ben Sturnham of Saracens - big, strong, powerful and as green as the playing fields of Brisbane - was picked at blind-side flanker in tandem with Tony Diprose, the No 8, and Richard Pool-Jones, a last-minute replacement for Pat Sanderson on the open side. Much to the puzzlement of those southern hemisphere sophisticates who know a loose forward from a loser, the great Lion of '93 was handed the sop of captaining the midweek "stiffs" against New Zealand's second-string.

Clarke's display in the mud and slime of Hamilton's Rugby Park may well turn out to have been a career-saver. Eighty self-sacrificial and hugely influential minutes at the coalface made him a stone cold certainty for the three remaining Tests and had Woodward singing his praises all the way from Carisbrook to Cape Town. "The guy is an absolute diamond," beamed Woodward after the compelling tussle with the All Blacks in Auckland.

True to his word, Woodward has restored his gem to the shop window for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers with Italy and the Netherlands. The other back-row specialists are Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Richard Hill and Diprose which means that, at 30, Clarke has leapfrogged both the 24-year-old Sturnham and, more resonantly still, the vastly experienced Tim Rodber.

"I'm chuffed to have made a full-strength squad, of course, but the thing now is to stay there," he said yesterday after another bout of physiotherapy on the bruised shoulder that has restricted him to 105 minutes of Premiership activity this season. "The back row is a real English strength at the moment and immensely competitive, probably more so than any other area of the side apart from scrum-half. It is always important to force your way into the first squad of an international season because, if you don't, you can only sit back and watch others perform. But there's a hell of a lot of rugby to be played before the World Cup next year, which is the real target for all of us."

Woodward is blessed with a number of multi-purpose back rowers - Dallaglio can play either six or eight, as can Clarke, while Hill leads a more unusual double life as a seven or eight - and he sees no earthly reason why he should be drawn on the precise balance of his ideal unit. Last season, he switched from a classical Dallaglio-Hill-Diprose triumvirate to a more radical Dallaglio-Back-Hill arrangement and, if he feels further World Cup experimentation is necessary, now is the time to reach for the test tubes.

But no one relishes the hard yards more than Clarke and it is perfectly feasible that when push comes to mighty shove against the Wallabies and Springboks later this winter, Woodward will play him at blind-side alongside Dallaglio and Hill in the most physically capable loose trio at his disposal. Suddenly, the threat of Gary Teichmann and Andre Venter seems a little less alarming.

"We all saw what Ben achieved in the summer in pretty dire circumstances, but there is no sentiment about his selection in this squad," said Woodward yesterday. "He's in on merit, pure and simple; I watched him play against Newcastle on the opening day of the season and thought he went bloody well. That's the criteria. Last summer is last summer; a candidate for this England side has to be doing the business now.

"Having said that, his contribution as a tourist was phenomenal. I didn't really know him from Adam, to be frank with you, but by the time we'd had a couple of team meetings, I knew he was a natural leader. He just demands respect. A lot of people in New Zealand, All Black greats like Murray Mexted, think he's the cat's whiskers, so he must have something going for him."