Rugby Union: Sound of approval as big Ben walks tall on the blind side: Clarke the adaptable Lion emerges to become the perfect tourist in a country where the back-row forward is king. Steve Bale reports

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WHEN they - meaning practically the entire New Zealand media - said the Lions forwards were too old and too slow, they obviously knew nothing of Ben Clarke. By his blissful performances on tour, big Ben has exposed their ignorance.

So now he is the Lion they admire most. 'He is earning the respect of New Zealanders and in a country where the back-row forward is king that is the highest praise you can earn,' Dick Best, the Lions forward coach, said with a mixture of admiration and amazement at Clarke's cheerful capacity for switching position and still playing outstandingly well.

As adaptability has been one of the tour's constant refrains, Clarke - neither too old nor too slow at 25 - is evidently the perfect tourist. What is more, he is untainted by yesterday's abject defeat by Hawke's Bay. 'A good player,' Best added, 'can play in any position.'

With the Lions, this is exactly what the Bath No 8 has had to do. Assuming Dean Richards recovers from his calf injury, on Saturday Clarke will be a key figure as the blind-side flanker in the second Test against the All Blacks in Wellington, a match the Lions must win to keep the series alive after losing in Christchurch.

Like Richards, whom he superseded in the England team against South Africa last November and then through the Five Nations' Championship, he came on tour as a No 8. He has also had to fill in as an emergency open side, but it has made no difference: wherever he has played, Clarke has been the best forward on the field, winning extravagant but wholly warranted praise.

For instance Stuart Wilson, a former New Zealand captain, said: 'He is now a world-class loose forward and, incredibly, he is still getting better. Every time I see him there seems to be another dimension to his game.' Wayne Shelford, another All Black captain, has long said Clarke would become the best No 8 in the world. Shelford should know: in his day he was the best No 8 in the world.

But the fact remains that, even though Clarke and not Richards was the preferred England No 8, it was assumed from the moment the Lions boarded their plane at Heathrow that Richards and not Clarke would be the Test No 8. And so it has worked out, though Clarke never accepted the assumption just as he did not assume that seeing off Richards for England would mean anything on this tour. 'People did seem to think I'd be lucky to keep Dean out of the Lions Test side, perhaps because England didn't do so well last season,' he said after Monday's training session down the road from Napier in Hastings.

'Had England won their Five Nations matches I'm sure the feeling would have been different. As far as I was concerned, the tour was a fresh start and what happened last season didn't count once we had arrived in New Zealand. Dean and I came on level terms and the Test choice was always going to depend totally on how people played out here.'

Clarke had produced two storming No 8 displays, against North Auckland and the NZ Maoris, when the call came that transformed his - and, one might say, the Lions' - tour. Richard Webster withdrew from the Canterbury game and, unwilling to overplay Peter Winterbottom, the selectors brought in Clarke at open side, where he had not played since school.

'It's not a risk,' Ian McGeechan, the coach, insisted, and by way of confirmation after the final pre-match training session Geoff Cooke, the manager, said that Clarke's lines of running suggested he had always played there. Even so, it took the evidence of the match to prove them right. Whether creating a try for Jeremy Guscott or making wide-out cover tackles, Clarke was magnificent.

It was enough to persuade the management that a Test place had to be found for him; hence his next move, to the blind side, where he has ousted his England colleague Mike Teague. 'If it means getting a Test place for the Lions you have to be quite happy to play anywhere,' Clarke said. 'I was a bit apprehensive about playing on the open side because it's very different from No 8, but when I thought about it I decided it was an important opportunity for me, and it worked to my benefit.

'That day made a lot of difference. I played quite well and perhaps I showed that I could adapt to a different position. So when I then went to blind side, I was comfortable about it and as I wasn't thrust into it at such a late stage we had a number of training sessions to get it all worked out. In any case blind side isn't that different from No 8 and I play as a No 8 in the line-out.'

Such a nice bloke, such a tough opponent. Wherever Clarke has been in New Zealand he has impressed. 'The way the game is played here has suited him, and because he is young and open-minded he has adapted very quickly,' Cooke said. 'In a sense it's a natural progression from what we saw last season; it's what I would hope from a player like that. He is very much an upwardly mobile rugby player and he has captured the imagination of the New Zealand people.'

So the compliments have been raining down but, pleased as he is at his performance, they will mean nothing to Clarke if the Lions do not square the series on Saturday. 'I think I've managed to perform to the level I would have wanted before we came here,' he said, which is a modest way of saying he is delighted. Now comes the rub. 'This is a crucial time. We have to perform as we've never done when we meet the All Blacks again. We've measured ourselves against them, seen how close we could get, and we now know precisely what we have to do to beat them.'

(Photograph omitted)