Rugby Union: The English rock in reserve

Ben Clarke, the back-rower in the background, who Woodward may now call on: Chris Hewett meets a replacement who was good enough for Meads' All Blacks
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The Independent Online
FIVE years ago, the notoriously hard-bitten rugby folk of New Zealand took such a liking to Ben Clarke that they tried to adopt him. "The Lions can go home whenever they like, just so long as they leave Clarke here," growled Colin Meads, still revered as the greatest post- war All Black whose opinion of British forwards had until then mirrored WC Fields' condescending view of dogs and children.

Clarke's towering performances in all three back-row positions during the 1993 Lions tour left unsentimental Silver Fern types heralding the emergence of an English captain in waiting and in one respect, they were bang on the money; the 30-year-old flanker has indeed been asked to lead his country in the first New Zealand outing of their round-the-houses southern hemisphere tour next Saturday. He is not, however, Clive Woodward's numero uno, merely the biggest and most experienced cheese in the dirt- trackers' shop window. No one predicted that back in '93.

The generally accepted explanation for Clarke's sudden fall from Test favour centres on his move from Bath to Richmond two years ago. Roger Uttley, the England manager, believes the self-imposed drop into Second Division anonymity, however temporary, affected both his form and fitness and there are many equally knowledgeable and respected movers and shakers who subscribe to that view.

Clarke tells it differently. "I thought long and hard about leaving Bath, who were very much on a high, and accepting the challenge of helping create something new at Richmond. I came to the conclusion that it was the most positive step for me and I think I've been proved right, despite the fact that I've lost my place in the Test side. I can see why people make these judgements about the Richmond move but if they take the trouble to watch me play, they'll see me fit and fresh and on top of my game.

"In actual fact, I felt I finished the 1996/97 season on a roll; I was very satisfied with my contribution to the England tour of Argentina. But the Lions were in South Africa simultaneously and the profile wasn't really there. Suddenly, England had a successful Lions back row at their disposal and the competition was a little on the intense side."

Intense? You could say. Clarke has played right across the back row for his country since winning the first of his 33 caps against the Springboks in 1992, but with Lawrence Dallaglio a fixture at blind-side, Tim Rodber up against the fast-developing Tony Diprose at No 8 and Richard Hill locked in mortal combat with Neil Back over the open-side berth, the pressure for places was asphyxiating.

Yet despite the fact that only one of those rivals, Diprose, is on the current trip, Clarke yesterday began on the replacements bench, before being asked to enter England's scene of devastation in the first half. Instead of asking the most internationally seasoned member of his party to bring some grizzled know-how to start against the Wallabies, Woodward preferred to experiment with two babes in arms on the flanks. It was a gamble that incurred a huge loss.

"Well, it was the management's choice and they had their reasons," said Clarke. "I'm not one to beef about selection, especially on tour where things can change completely in the course of four or five weeks. At least I'm here, fully involved and up for the challenge of regaining my place. Losing it affected me, definitely; once you've been up there and experienced the unique atmosphere of Test rugby, you don't want to let it go. But while I've found the road back longer and harder than perhaps I expected, I've never once lost an ounce of determination. It's always burned in me.

"Some people take the view that I was too versatile for my own good, that chopping and changing positions in the back row prevented me from battening down a place. I don't know about that. Loose-forward play nowadays demands similar standards of pace, stamina and footballing ability in all three roles. The defensive duties may still be specific to your precise position but in attack, it's support, support, support. You fill in for whoever isn't there, whether you've got six, seven or eight on your back. No, I don't regret switching shirts. If it means the difference between playing and not playing, I'd swap again tomorrow."

As things stand, Clarke will appear in his Lions position of blind-side when England take on New Zealand A in Hamilton next weekend. The last time he visited Waikato in '93, he and the other Test players were forced to watch the midweek "stiffs" suffer the mother of all shellackings from a hyper-motivated band of locals led by John Mitchell, now a valued member of Woodward's coaching support staff.

"I remember it well," says Clarke, half wincing at the memory, half smiling with continued relief that he was spared the discomfort of direct involvement. "I can recall seeing a very large New Zealand lock running straight at - and straight over - poor old Stuart Barnes in the very first minute and thinking, 'Crikey, I'm glad I'm sitting here'."

Clarke must have had a huge doze of deja vu as he looked on yesterday. Unfortunately for Clarke, this time he was called on to play a role.

"I suppose there are those who think we're heading for some similar thumpings over the next four weeks, especially as this is such a young, untested squad. New Zealand has always been an unforgiving place to play; I found it unbelievably tough in '93 and I spent most of that tour playing alongside Dean Richards and Peter Winterbottom. We found out last autumn how strong the New Zealand A side can be and although they've lost the backbone of their Test side with the departures of Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke and the injury to Justin Marshall, their production line is always throwing up outstanding new talent."

After the Brisbane battering Woodward may have to call on the experience of Clarke to put the breaks under this production line, before the All Blacks go into overdrive.

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