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'A real tough period': Caleb Clarke opens up on difficult 2021 season

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Martin Hunter / www.photosport.nz

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After a breakout year in 2020, many held high hopes for Blues and All Blacks star Caleb Clarke heading into last season.

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A World Sevens Series title with the All Blacks Sevens, becoming arguably the best player of Super Rugby Aotearoa and a stunning debut campaign at test level left the rugby world in awe of Clarke’s talents.

It was no surprise, then, that expectations were high for the blockbusting 22-year-old wing as he entered what was effectively his sophomore season as a bona fide rugby star in 2021.

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Even the man himself had lofty aspirations in a year where further All Blacks tests, a potential Super Rugby title and an appearance at the Olympics in Tokyo all beckoned on the horizon.

Things didn’t pan out as anticipated, though, as Clarke struggled to rekindle the form that made him one of the world’s most exciting young prospects when he returned to the Blues for their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

He then left the Auckland franchise ahead of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, thus missing out on their title-winning exploits in a bid to chase an Olympic gold medal, only to fail to make the final All Blacks Sevens squad as the Kiwis left Japan with silver.

Following all of that, Clarke was then denied the chance to play in New Zealand’s NPC as his provincial side, Auckland, were one of three teams withdrawn from the competition due to the city’s four-month lockdown between August and December.

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That prevented Clarke from returning to the All Blacks, as he had hoped to do for their end-of-year tour of the United States and Europe, bringing the curtain down on a year that promised so much but delivered so little for the five-test international.

Most would be left frustrated or uninspired by such setbacks, but Clarke hasn’t been so easily deterred by those hurdles that halted his budding career last year.

Instead, he used that time where he wasn’t selected, or simply couldn’t play, to better himself both physically and mentally for the season ahead, which kicks-off against Moana Pasifika at Mt Smart Stadium in less than a month’s time.

“I sort of reflect on lockdown, and that was a real tough period,” Clarke said on Tuesday.

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“That was sort of the time where I thought I was still going to go on tour [with the All Blacks].

“Even before that, my thought was playing in the Olympics, having a crack at that, and just having a bad hand after bad hand every time in lockdown, even Seany [Wainui] passing away, made things more tough as well, but it’s helped me look forward for this season.

“It’s helped me realise that there’s more to life than just rugby.

“I’m here now and I’m just enjoying myself, and that’s sort of the most important thing you want to do when you play sport as a career, is just making sure you come in every day enjoying it, loving the game. I’ve found that love again.

“I think if I look back at last year, in 2021, I put too much expectation on myself and I listened to too many people where I should have just been listening to my small circle and just enjoying the game. That’s sort of the focus.

“I’m not worried if I don’t make the All Blacks or don’t make sevens or anything. I just enjoy the game and that’s where I’m at at this point.”

Evidence of Clarke’s newfound enthusiasm for the game was clear to see when he reported for media duties at Blues HQ a few kilograms lighter following an intense off-season of training alongside new Blues star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

That, as well as a return to a squad environment following months of lonesome training, has, in part, helped build the youngster’s confidence and positivity leading into the inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific.

“Just taking things one step at a time. If I reflect on last year, I had so many things on, it just felt like my attention was divided, so this year has just got one focus and that’s just enjoying rugby, enjoying being back with the boys,” Clarke said.

“It’s been awesome being out of lockdown, being in another system where you can be with people, and I think that’s where I thrive. I thrive the most when I’m around people.”

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It’s little wonder that Clarke, who said he has no regrets about chasing his Olympics dream despite missing selection for the Games, is eager to return to a proper training environment given he hasn’t played any kind of rugby since last June.

Clarke will have the chance to change that next Saturday when the Blues host the Hurricanes in their first pre-season fixture at Takapuna in Auckland – a much-needed match for Clarke and those who haven’t played for months.

Until then, he will have to contain his excitement about the prospect of returning to action for the next week-and-a-half.

“I’m excited. I haven’t played XVs since the last Super Rugby Aotearoa game [against the Chiefs last May]. I haven’t played any form of rugby since June, so I have itchy feet,” he said.

“I come in every day and it’s just training, but I’m just like, ‘Let’s play’. I’ve got to hold myself back from getting over-competitive because it’s just been that long since I’ve played.

“I think that competitive edge is coming out of me since I haven’t played this long. I don’t think anyone has had a period where they’ve played this long in our team, so I just have to control that because on top of competitiveness comes a bit of aggression, too.

“I don’t want to yell at people, but I want to win, so it’s just that real competitiveness and real eagerness to get out there.”

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