Rugby Union: Clarke keen to take on the world again

Tim Glover finds Bath's big man revived and ready for recall

BEN CLARKE will discover over the next few days whether he still has an international future. If Clarke, who was not at Twickenham yesterday for England's match with the American Eagles, is not recalled to play against Canada next Saturday, it is unlikely he will make the coach Clive Woodward's World Cup squad of 30.

"I have no indication of Clive's plans," Clarke said. "I have no idea what is going to happen." Whereas Clarke captained England A to a facile victory over an American second string at Northampton last Tuesday, the back row yesterday saw the return of Lawrence Dallaglio, in harness with Richard Hill and Neil Back.

Although Dallaglio lost the captaincy following allegations of, among other things, drug misuse, he has never lost the support of Woodward. "Ever since Lawrence came to my house and explained what had happened I've believed in his innocence," Woodward said. "I continue to believe in it and I also believe he will play in the World Cup."

On Wednesday, Woodward will discover whether his employers, the Rugby Football Union, share his belief. Dallaglio faces an RFU disciplinary tribunal to answer charges of taking drugs during the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa and of bringing the game into disrepute.

The Dallaglio imbroglio, which broke three months ago, gave Clarke an unexpected ticket on England's excursion to Australia, and the timing could hardly have been better. Clarke was then captain of Richmond, who were in the process of being swallowed up by English First Division Rugby.

Clarke was at Twickenham for the crucial EFDR meeting which sealed Richmond's fate but was not allowed to speak. "I thought Richmond would survive because there was a viable business plan in place," Clarke said, "but other people were working to different agendas."

Officially, Richmond and London Scottish "merged" with London Irish, although not a single Richmond player has joined the so-called superclub. The Irish, for obvious reasons, wanted a Richmond presence, and Clarke was top of their list.

"As far as I was concerned it was never an option," said Clarke, who rejoined Bath, the club he left in 1996. "It was clearly not a merger. What happened at Richmond was disastrous and I'll never forget it but I've had to put it behind me. The opportunity to join England in Australia helped me to become a lot more positive and concentrate on individual goals."

A conversation with the Bath coach Andy Robinson led to a return to the West Country - where Clarke played some of his finest rugby - albeit at a reduced salary. When he joined Richmond three years ago he was one of the highest-paid players in professional rugby.

At 31 and with 40 caps, Clarke, who played in the 1995 World Cup, has a sell-by date that does not extend to the cup in 2003. The outcome of the Dallaglio tribunal is awaited with interest, but Woodward also has Martin Corry and Joe Worsley to consider.

"The thing about Ben," John Kingston, the former director of rugby at Richmond, said, "is that he's outstanding against outstanding players. He can look a little ungainly against weaker opposition; playing Outer Mongolia is not his forte.

"To win the cup England will have to beat three top sides in successive weeks, and Ben is a big-match player. It's a bit like the Ryder Cup selection. You wouldn't pick two rookies, you've got to go for experience, and Ben's been around the block. He would also be an excellent balance to Dallaglio. They are two totally different players. Against the better teams you need an insurance policy of someone who is in his element when the opposition has the ball. Dallaglio's natural instincts are to roam the open spaces. But you will also need someone at the coalface."

Clarke, who has moved to an old coach house in Chippenham but who still has a share in a wine bar in Richmond, Paradis 2, could find himself reacquainted with the London club's last stamping-ground.

Although Bath have plans for the council-owned Recreation Ground, they do not have a lot of room for expansion in the heart of a town which has conservation written all over it. Richmond, in a worse position at the Athletic Ground, felt compelled to move to the Madejski Stadium near Reading.

Bath are exploring the possibility of a similar move, if only for their attractive home matches in the European Cup, when they would expect to draw larger crowds than could be accommodated at the Recreation Ground.

Whether such a move for Clarke would be paradise regained or paradise lost remains to be seen.

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