Clarke's warrior spirit fortifies Bath

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The Independent Online

Back in the days when the Bath Mafia controlled the rough-and-ready sporting neighbourhood of rugby union - and they controlled it with such ruthless efficiency that every Saturday was a St Valentine's Day massacre - there was something distinctly upfront and personal about life at the Recreation Ground.

Back in the days when the Bath Mafia controlled the rough-and-ready sporting neighbourhood of rugby union - and they controlled it with such ruthless efficiency that every Saturday was a St Valentine's Day massacre - there was something distinctly upfront and personal about life at the Recreation Ground.

Times have changed, dramatically. There is nothing very up-front about this season's underpowered West Country pack, and some of the more seasoned foot soldiers are wondering privately whether their younger brethren take defeat nearly as personally as they should.

The 1998 European champions are fortunate, therefore, that Benjamin Bevan Clarke will be playing the Don Corleone role when the unbeaten men of Munster come visiting on Heineken Cup business this afternoon. Clarke was deeply disappointed at the manner of Bath's defeat at the hands of the same opponents in Limerick seven days ago, just as he was exasperated at the way his side handed Newport victory on a silver platter at Rodney Parade in the preceding tie.

Try telling him that things could be worse - that Northampton, the reigning champions, conceded 30 turnovers in their catastrophic defeat by another Irish side, Leinster - and he is profoundly unimpressed. "Just the 30?" mutters the captain, darkly. "We managed 35 at Thomond Park last weekend."

It is a long, long time since the most successful club in history managed more turnovers than points, hence Clarke's decision to call his charges together for an "honesty session" after training on Thursday.

"I told them that for these 80 minutes against Munster, they will have to reach places they've never reached before - that Munster are a team in the real rugby sense of the word, that they will work for each other and complement each other and fight for everything that's going.

"We have to match them in the areas they consider themselves to be strong - in desire and spirit and commitment, in knowing exactly what to do and when. Let's face it, if we don't win this one, we'll finish miles short of expectations."

Even now, five years after their last domestic trophy, Bath players find themselves coping with levels of expectation far in advance of the norm.

"I'll tell you about expectation," says Clarke, now in his second stint at The Rec. "A few weeks ago, we played Harlequins in the Premiership. We were 10 points up in as many minutes - a pretty reasonable scoring rate, all things considered. And what happened? Someone in the crowd yelled at the top of his voice: 'Come on, Clarkey, sort it out.' Sort it out! I ask you - we're going along at a point every 60 seconds and a supporter on the terraces is telling me to sort it out. That's Bath rugby in all its glory.

"I still feel the responsibility of being a Bath player very acutely, and I've been here for years, off and on. I still think of the great players who have worn the shirt and I continue to consider myself fortunate to play my rugby in such a fantastic environment - fantastic in terms of support and back-up and attitude.

"We haven't been on top of our game this season and, as captain, I feel the pressure of that failure. The precision hasn't been there and our execution has let us down. You only get so many chances in a match and, what's more, only so many chances to create chances. So we've looked very closely at ourselves this week and we've come up with some changes. We can all play the game - it's just a matter of rediscovering how to play it at the optimum."

It is a measure of Clarke's stature as a rugby man that he is held in such esteem by those who watch their thud and blunder on the banks of the Avon. After all, he broke a fairly important rule by leaving Bath for Richmond in 1995 - the rule that if it is a great honour to play for the club, it is every bit as great a betrayal to walk away from it.

When Simon Halliday, the England centre, did something similar in the early 1990s, he was made to feel like a pariah. "Simon, if I had to drop a goal to beat anyone in a cup final," said the caustic Stuart Barnes after Bath's last-minute victory over Harlequins eight years ago, "I'm glad it was you."

But Clarke is made of different stuff - indeed, we have not seen his like since Dean Richards, his old mucker in the red-rose back row, shambled off into retirement. He is 32 now and not quite the force of nature he once was, yet the warrior spirit remains embedded in his soul. Had rugby not turned professional midway through the last decade - had it remained amateur and continued to place entirely unreasonable demands on its top-flight practitioners - Clarke would still have given everything to his chosen sport, and extracted every last drop of enjoyment from it in return.

"Nothing has changed in that sense," he agrees. "I still love my rugby. Thomond Park last week was something else, a wonderful experience irrespective of the result. It was passionate and intense, but, more than that, the crowd was respectful of the players, respectful of the traditions of the game. They knew what they were watching and they responded in the right way.

"I know the game is out there in the market place now, that people have different ideas about how to drive it forward. But there are aspects to rugby we dare not lose that need to be protected. We're treading a thin line at the moment."

Presumably, that line was crossed when Richmond fell upon hard times and were sent through the trap door by their Premiership peers. Clarke, who had spearheaded the London club's brief transformation from cobweb-infested relic to bright young thing, shakes his head sadly at the fate of the side currently wallowing around in Herts/Middlesex One, alongside such mighty oaks as Enfield Ignatians and Old Hamptonians.

"Let's face it, they were shafted," he reflects. "They're still being shafted, in the sense that they should have reentered the league structure far higher up than they did. Still, the club has survived, in spite of those people who didn't want it to, and I keep in touch as best I can. It was a big part of my life, Richmond."

As is the Heineken Cup, of course. Clarke was a part of the Bath side that first blazed a trail in Europe under Jack Rowell - while their English rivals could see no further than their own back fence, the West Countrymen were mixing it regularly with the big boys from France.

Clarke was a fully fledged Richmondite when Bath were crowned champions of Europe - ironically, he had led the Londoners to a famous cup victory at The Rec the week before his old colleagues relieved Brive of their title in Bordeaux - but that merely heightens his desire for a repeat performance. "The Heineken is the tournament by which we measure ourselves," he says.

Unless Bath beat Munster today, that measuring process will be extremely painful.