19 Oct 2020

Opinion - Don't ever change, Caleb Clarke

9:04 pm on 19 October 2020

A good night's sleep can make a world of difference. Well it did to All Black coach Ian Foster, who tried in vain last night to ask the media assembled at Eden Park after the All Blacks' 27-7 Bledisloe Cup win to 'not paint a headline' around the prodigious rise to fame of his newest superstar Caleb Clarke.

Caleb Clarke has a selfie with fans after the second Bledisloe Cup test Auckland 2020.


By midday today, Foster had relented, probably because he'd woken up to see Clarke's one million watt smile underneath a multitude of headlines anyway.

"I love the fact that he's got that big smile," the coach said.

"He just wants to have some fun out there."

That, more than anything, sums up why Clarke has captured the public's attention so dramatically over the last fortnight. The All Blacks have always had a long tradition of unleashing new, more devastating weapons on the rest of the rugby world, but no players of late have quite the sense of taking it in their stride that Clarke does.

It's very apparent that his upbringing has played a huge role in creating this personality. Unless you've been living under a rock you will know by now that his father Eroni is a former All Black himself, who was the most popular spectator at Eden Park yesterday. Every time the camera showed Clarke Senior he looked to be having just as much of a good time as his son, with the sun-drenched crowd roaring in approval at his presence. That's not the only family storyline this year though, with his grandfather's passing inspiring a standout performance for the Blues against the Highlanders in June.

However, there is somewhat of an irony in Caleb Clarke's rapid ascension. Despite the feel good family connection and infectious impetuousness of youth, the fact still remains that he is one of the most shining examples of success of the modern professional talent production line in New Zealand - one that has been steadily under more and more scrutiny, as seen lately in the arguments against the commodification of First XV rugby for television.

Caleb Clarke with parents Eroni and Siala after the second Bledisloe Cup rugby test Auckland 2020.

Caleb Clarke with parents Eroni and Siala Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Clarke has ticked every box in that line. He played his college rugby with traditional powerhouse Mt Albert Grammar, winning the 2016 National Championship. A year later, he was part of a world championship win with the New Zealand under 20s, then a year after that a Mitre 10 Cup victory with Auckland. Then, of course, this year he starred for the resurgent Blues team. Throughout this entire time it seemed to any rugby pundit that it was going to be a matter of if, not when he'd follow in his father's footsteps into an All Black jersey.

But Clarke has shown that the mould that makes All Blacks doesn't have to confine personality, and that what they do off the park is just as entertaining as what they do on it. A clip of him playing the piano went viral, as did one of him nonchalantly hurling a ball 50 metres downfield during training. Then there's the way he comes across in his press appearances, friendly yet humble, excited but not overawed.

Most of all, it's apparent that he wants to be there. The unfortunately telling reaction on social media was that Clarke's friendly openness will 'get coached out of him' before long, referring to the All Blacks' tendency to flatten out any individualism to the point that every press conference might as well be the same player talking. Let's hope not, and the signs are there that what he's bringing is rubbing off on the rest of the team, as veteran hooker Codie Taylor was happy to confirm.

"It's awesome to see that those sorts of people coming through can be themselves, in what can be a daunting environment.' he told the media.

When asked if he'd ever seen someone create as much impact so early on in his career, Taylor echoed the sentiments of many by comparing Clarke to Jonah Lomu. While he may have had his tongue slightly in his cheek, that answer does raise an important point.

All Blacks winger Caleb Clarke during the 2nd Bledisloe Cup test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Australia - Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand.  18  October  2020       Photo: Brett Phibbs / www.photosport.nz

Photo: PhotoSport

The incomparable Lomu's impact was due to his marketability as an individual, and the All Black brand could happily sit on his colossal shoulders for a ride upwards in the global recognition stakes. That was 25 years ago, and while it's too soon to say that Clarke can have anywhere near the sort of impact, it would be worth having a rethink about the way the All Blacks are marketed.

Rugby needs stars, so let them shine bright. Let's celebrate that the latest one has come in the form of a 21-year-old, 107kg winger who bounces off defenders like a pinball while smiling the whole time.

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