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6 October 2022
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Caleb Clarke’s smile, and his infectious energy, are back. It’s a sure sign the struggles of last year are behind him. This season hasn’t been entirely smooth; yet, among the setbacks, Clarke has rediscovered his groove. He’s back in his happy place, back scoring tries, back running rampant on the edge for the All Blacks to make the left wing his own.

That’s a world away from last season, when second year syndrome hit Clarke hard. After a dominant, breakout 2020 campaign, his form dwindled for the Blues as he juggled several teams and goals, eventually missing selection in the Olympic sevens side.

Returning home to lockdowns and Auckland confinement didn’t help, either. Through those low points, Clarke lost enjoyment for rugby. Only when he struck up a friendship during pre-season training with former Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and adopted a fresh mindset based around being grateful for each day and staying in the moment, did Clarke shake the funk that increasingly enveloped him last year. “He was the one who brought that spark back,” Clarke says of All Blacks and Blues convert Tuivasa-Sheck.

“I had conversations with my dad and he said those times when I was training with Roger in lockdowns he could see that spark back. I would come home from training and tell Dad, ‘I learnt this and this from Roger.’ That built into the excitement for the Blues season.” Harnessing that revived enthusiasm, Clarke returned to form with the Blues to finish this season as their leading tryscorer – despite missing seven matches en route to their final loss to the Crusaders at Eden Park.

In a stop-start season, Clarke copped a three-week suspension for an attempted chargedown that left Moana Pasifika opposite Tomasi Alosio knocked out, and he then injured his hamstring in the penultimate round-robin win over the Brumbies in Canberra.

The timing of that injury – two weeks before the Blues’ home quarter-final – was cruel. Just as Clarke found his stride to regain confidence, he was cut down in full flight. Naturally desperate to return for the Blues’ finals run, Clarke now concedes he pushed his hamstring too hard, too early, which extended his run on the sidelines to two-and-a-half months.

That ruled him out of the All Blacks’ entire home series defeat against Ireland. “It was probably not helpful that I was pushing to get back to playing. I really wanted to make the semifinal and final for the Blues so every time I kept trying to push it, and some days I wasn’t listening to the trainer,” Clarke reflects. “It was a good lesson to learn about myself and how much I should listen to my body rather than what my head wants.” Clarke made his anticipated return – 21 months after his last Test – in the All Blacks’ underwhelming loss to the Springboks in Nelspruit. He’s been a fixture on the left wing since, scoring two tries in back-to-back home tests against Argentina to see off significant challenges from Crusaders duo Sevu Reece and Leicester Faingaanuku.

To ensure he endures no further hamstring issues, Clarke has extended his warm-up routine. On match night, Clarke is often out on the pitch well before his teammates as he runs sideline-to-sideline to fire up his sizeable legs. “I’m trying to warm up the hammy a lot more. When we were in South Africa, I was playing with a hamstring brace, which helped keep it warm, and now I don’t have it on any more so I’m wanting to make sure I’m as physically prepared as possible.”

Joe Schmidt’s presence at the Blues this season – after acting as a sounding board for Leon MacDonald the previous year – added another layer of detail to their defence, attack and strategy. All Blacks coach Ian Foster had been coaxing Schmidt to join his team for the last two years. When Foster finally succeeded, after cutting ties with assistants Brad Mooar and John Plumtree following the fallout from the Ireland series, Clarke knew exactly what to expect from the highly astute Schmidt. “It’s been awesome having him in camp. It was quite funny when he was first named to be in the All Blacks coaching team. The whole team listened to him speak for the first time and I realised I missed hearing his voice when he was at the Blues, and he used to talk a lot.

“The first time he spoke to the All Blacks it was a cool flashback. With the All Blacks, I was ready to go and train right then after hearing him talk. “You can see what he did with Ireland and how well they did under his leadership. It shows how much of an impact he has as a coach and person as well. The thing that surprised me the most when I first met him was how much he wanted to know me as a person, not just a rugby player. He took time out to connect with the players and the staff that worked at the Blues. I know he does the same with all the All Blacks’ operational team. He’s a really cool guy.”

As an attacking weapon, Clarke is among the most potent in world rugby. Give him the ball in space, and the 107kg former sprinter’s frame at pace is incredibly difficult to stop. One 60-metre burst early in the All Blacks’ knife-edge 39-37 victory in Melbourne that locked away the Bledisloe for a 20th straight year was a case in point. Defensively, Clarke can be exposed coming off his wing and falling off the odd tackle, though. He is striving to deliver more with ball in hand, too.

“I still feel like there’s things missing from when I was playing at the Blues until now. I’m still trying to find my feet. The best example so far is getting a line break and I’m not finishing it – that’s what I’m feeling personally, but I’m grateful to be back out there. It means heaps to put on that black jersey again and get to represent my family and culture.”

In a wildly fluctuating year for the All Blacks, scrutiny has reached fever pitch on multiple occasions. Try as the team might to block out the deafening noise that surrounded Ian Foster’s future as head coach, it is, at times, impossible to escape. Clarke has experience with the wave of adulation, as well as the nameless, faceless, often heartless, critics that stalk the social world. He’s learnt, therefore, to come to terms with both extremes. That’s partly why, after recently resigning through to 2024, little can shake Clarke from his happy place.

“It’s tough because it’s always going to be there. It’s quite funny when you have friends or family members trying to stick up for you and they tag you in the comments. You had no idea what was being said before then. “As a team and individuals, we’ve learnt to block it out. I know some people like reading it and using it as fuel. Others don’t want to see it at all. It kind of just shows the passion people have for this team as well. They might dog us for something but, really, they love you deep down somewhere.

That’s what I’m going to take from it. If they say I suck at tackling, they’re saying it out of love. Everyone is entitled to their opinions so you’ve got to live with it, it’s the world we live in now.” And with that refreshing dose of reality, Clarke skips away to his own beat, with the promise of much more to come. In many ways he’s merely getting started in the black jersey.

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