By Liam Napier, NZ Herald

Blues coach Leon MacDonald heaped praise on Caleb Clarke’s standout performance against the Highlanders after the highly-promising wing lost his grandfather earlier in the day.

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Clarke shed tears during a pre-match moment of silence as the 27,000 strong Eden Park crowd paused to honour slain Constable Matthew Hunt, who died in the line of duty in Auckland last week.

The 21-year-old is enjoying a breakout year after returning to the Blues from the New Zealand sevens team, and the loss of his grandfather inspired him to deliver another impressive display.

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Blues v Highlanders Press Conference

Speaking to Sky after the match, Clarke dedicated his superb performance to his grandfather.

“It was a big day losing my grandfather just before kick-off,” Clarke said. “It was a bit hard and it was a bit iffy whether I was going to play.’

“But I know he would want me to play so I just dedicated that game to him – that was to you grandpa.”

Clarke pointed to the sky in tribute after scoring the opening try in the Blues’ 27-24 victory. He then laid on Rieko Ioane’s first half strike after a brilliant break, and snaffled one Beauden Barrett restart to showcase his talents in the air.

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“What an effort,” MacDonald said. “It’s been a big day, obviously, for him and his family. It’s been tough. He really wanted to go out and put a performance his grandfather would be proud of and I thought he was brilliant tonight. He’ll be emotionally drained so what a mighty effort from him. We’re all thinking for their family of their loss.”

After watching his team blow a 22-10 halftime lead and then cling on for victory, MacDonald was pleased to welcome next week’s bye following three straight Super Rugby Aotearoa victories since lockdown.

“The Highlanders were really gritty and tough and did everything but win really. We’ll take the win. It highlights just how tough this competition is. It’s good for the crowd but not good for the heart rate.

“It’s a good time for the bye it gives us a chance to have a decent look at the Crusaders and start again really.

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“It will allow us to regroup. We were a bit beaten and battered leading into this game and probably didn’t have the same zip we had in the previous couple of weeks.

“Going to Christchurch is a great challenge they haven’t lost down there for a long time so it doesn’t take much motivation to get excited about it.”

Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger, meanwhile, does not expect Nehe Milner-Skudder to be available for selection next week despite losing wing Sam Gilbert to a knee injury against the Blues.

Mauger instead predicted the former All Black would return the following week against the Hurricanes, his former team, in Wellington.

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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