Rugby Union: Clarke in position to play a blinder: England's Mr Versatile is back on form. Steve Bale spoke to him in Cape Town

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The Independent Online
THE LOCALS were beginning to wonder what all the fuss had been about. Ben Clarke left New Zealand last year as the most lionised Lion bar none, but when he reached South Africa his play became anonymous, his hands tended to let him down. Frankly, there was nothing much to admire.

Until last Saturday, that is, when the old Clarke returned in triumph in the first Test against the Springboks. Had Tim Rodber not had such a staggeringly good game as blind-side flanker, Clarke's own superb performance would have been lauded as the masterpiece it was. Amazing: this is a No 8 still learning to be an open-side.

In this afternoon's second Test at Newlands, Clarke, 26, reverts to his customary position, though he knows his relief is likely to be as temporary as the calf injury which yesterday forced Dean Richards' withdrawal. But then Clarke, as would any England aspirant, says he would play anywhere at his country's call.

'I have to say I don't find it easy playing on the open side,' he admitted. 'It's a very specialised position, very different from playing No 8, and I'm still very much at the learning stage - which is hardly ideal for playing Test rugby. The lines of running are different. Open side is very much part of the first-phase defence.

'You always have to be first to the breakdown, whereas a No 8 is slotting in behind. I'm sure I have not let anyone down but at the same time I know I'm a lot more comfortable within myself playing at six or eight. I dare say I contribute as much when I'm playing at seven; it's just a matter of personal preference as well as past experience.'

Reluctant or not, the learning has had to be fast. Clarke was first thrown into the role with the Lions against Canterbury, an emergency selection induced by injuries to others, and his contribution to one of that tour's better wins was breathtaking considering his utter inexperience. By the time of the Tests, he was on the blind side with Richards at No 8.

For some, versatility can be a ruination rather than a recommendation, but for Clarke positional interchangeability has come naturally and been useful. He won his first five England caps in 1992-93 where he likes it, but when they played New Zealand last November the open-side option was taken again, and that - except for last season's Ireland game, which he fortunately missed with an elbow injury that still troubles him - is where he has had to remain.

Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that unfamiliarity with South African conditions added to unfamiliarity with a new position should have caused Clarke to struggle in the tour's early days, even if post- Pretoria that seems another age. 'The first couple of games were hard to get into and I wasn't satisfied with my form,' he said.

'Things didn't happen for us, and they certainly didn't happen for me. We were playing different tactics and in the Natal and Western Transvaal games didn't keep the ball in hand at all. We weren't creating the opportunities for second- phase ball. Back-row play becomes very difficult when that happens.

'It's easy to make this excuse but South Africa is a very difficult place to tour for a lot of reasons. The refereeing here has been absolutely shocking, and when decisions are going against you which stop you getting points and building momentum, the frustration and its effect on the quality of your play are quite dramatic.'

Things eventually began to pick up in the Transvaal game a fortnight ago, which hindsight shows to have been a far better England performance than appeared the case at the time. By the time of the Pretoria Test the ball-carrying, ground-gaining titan familiar from Bath, England and the Lions had been fully rehabilitated.

And now he has to do it all over again, which, after the way he played last week, would be asking the impossible if he did not insist it is perfectly possible. Still fresh in the Clarke memory is his gut- wrenching distress when the Lions, having squared last year's series against the All Blacks by winning the second Test in Wellington, lost the decider in Auckland.

'There's no doubt in my mind that I can play as well as in Pretoria, and so can the team,' he said. 'Confidence is high. We had an outstanding win a week ago but we set our standards very high and our feeling is that we haven't won anything yet. I have a great desire to win this match, greater than ever before. I will never, ever forget how I felt a year ago when the Lions lost the third Test. I will never forget that missed opportunity, and this is a very similar situation to be in. That is a huge motivation.'

Another, less obvious, motivation concerns the palate. Clarke has a running wager with the genial man from the Press Association of a glass of red wine to the PA for every dropped pass to a case for each game in which he drops nothing. 'At the moment I'm 11 bottles to the good,' Clarke smiled. Win today, and this could be some party.

(Photographs omitted)