Tired nomad back in his rightful place

Ben Clarke may be leader of the pack but he still intends to keep his day job. Tim Glover meets England's No 8
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The Independent Online
In the brave new professional world, nothing, or almost nothing, is left to chance. Jack Rowell, the England manager, revealed this week that his charges were required to study videos of their individual performances. So, how did it look Ben? Ben Clarke looked embarrassed. "I haven't got a video recorder," he admitted. "It's been nicked."

Getting turned over by South Africa at Twickenham was bad enough (this was the X-rated movie the boys were meant to study in the comfort of their homes) but Clarke gives the impression that being blitzed by the All Blacks in the semi-final of the World Cup in the summer had left a scar on England's psyche. "I will never forget the sheer speed, pace and power of their game," he said.

The funny thing is is that England were ready for the onslaught. "We thought they would try something to break the game up. We knew exactly what they were going to do but we were completely outplayed," Clarke said. It didn't help, of course, that Will Carling had said on the eve of the game: "We're going to tear those boys apart." In the event, of course, Jonah Lomu scored four tries. "We did underestimate Lomu," Clarke said. "I don't know why. We didn't expect him to be quite as strong."

But it wasn't just Lomu who embarrassed England. One of the All Blacks tries had nothing to do with the wing, everything to do with the sharp interplay between back-row and scrum-half. It came from a scrum and England's vaunted back-row of Clarke, Dean Richards and Tim Rodber didn't lay a hand on anybody. "I know why that happened," Clarke recalls, "but I can't really say." Presumably on the grounds that he would incriminate his team- mates or Rowell.

Whatever, England now realise what the All Blacks realised during the World Cup, namely that Deano is too old and too slow for Test rugby with the result that Clarke, a back-row nomad, is back in his rightful position at No 8. This is what he was at Bishop's Stortford and at Saracens whom he joined in 1989.

Two years later Big Jack, who was in charge at Bath, rang Big Ben and offered him a place. "I told him I'd have to think about it," Clarke said, "but there was nothing to think about. I had a tremendous amount of respect for Bath. I was flattered."

Saracens were incensed. Did Bath promise Clarke, then a student at Cirencester agriculture college, a rose garden? "Far from it," he said. "I rented a house with Phil de Glanville and I was given a job at a dairy farm. I had to get up at 5am every morning, feeding and milking the cows. It was a hands on job."

In 1992 he replaced Richards as England No 8 against South Africa at Twickenham - this was the hesitant Springboks being led back into the fold - but then Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach in New Zealand, played Clarke at 6 or 7 with conspicuous success. He emerged as the Lions' player of the series.

Having been poached and coached by Rowell, Clarke has the added responsibility this season, at the age of 27, of leading not only the Bath pack but the England eight which is not quite the same bed of roses. "Playing flanker made me think more about my game," Clarke said. "The first couple of times I got away with it but when people started studying the video they saw enormous holes in my game. I sought as much advice as possible on lines of running and positional play. Number 8's easy. You just follow the number 7."

Now, with the ink barely dry on their new contracts, they're following Clarke. "There are some very experienced players around me. I'm finding my way and if things aren't right there are players in the pack who know what's going on. I don't have to ask them to play with pride and passion. Up front we played reasonably well against South Africa although we could have had a little more drive.

"We gave them a few opportunities but they applied an incredible amount of pressure and forced us into doing things we wouldn't normally do. They are far better than people think. They taught us a few lessons and as long as we've come out of it with something then it's not a disaster. It would be a bit hasty if anybody said we'd gone backwards."

Clarke is sitting in the Petersham Hotel in Richmond and he looks whacked. Up at 6.30am to drive from Bath to London for a business meeting with his brother-in-law; England training at the Bank of England ground; interview with Capital Radio on his favourite music; to Twickenham with Carling for a photo session for a new book; mineral water with the Independent, declining a pint of Brakspears on the grounds that one leads to another; team meeting. He already has a book out this year: Ben Clarke's Rugby Skills. He laughs like crazy at the title. "I shouldn't think any of the others have read it," he said. "I've taken a bit of leg pulling."

The squad's negotiators over terms with the RFU are Carling, Rodber, Mike Catt and Martin Johnson. "The contracts should have been sorted out a long time ago," Clarke said.

He usually trains twice a day and is not inclined to give up his day job, PR work with National Power, so he drives about 50,000 miles a year. "I'm lucky I can do both," he said. "It gives me a bit more security. My ambition is to play for England full stop." All Clarke needs for Christmas is a handsome win over Western Samoa and a video that will allow him to watch it.