In young star Caleb Clarke, the All Blacks may have found a new leading candidate to claim the No. 11 jersey this weekend.
That’s the verdict of Clarke’s Blues teammate and former All Blacks hooker James Parsons, who labelled the newly-capped New Zealand international as “a weapon”.
Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Parsons said Clarke was worthy of starting for the national side in this week’s Bledisloe Cup clash following the youngster’s impressive cameo showing off the bench in the 16-all draw against the Wallabies in Wellington.
Coming into the match in place of Damian McKenzie with little more than 10 minutes to play, the 21-year-old showed glimpses of the devastating power that made him one of the form players in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
“For me, Caleb Clarke has to be on the field,” the two-test rake said.
“Every time he touched the ball – I don’t know how many defenders beaten, but it would be in double figures, and he didn’t have that much time on the park.
“He just looks a weapon, a threat with ball in hand.”
Both Parsons and Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall were particularly impressed with the composure and maturity shown by Clarke in what was his test debut.
“I thought he was outstanding, and the best thing for a young guy coming through, when you think about it in a scenario like that, you can kind of go out there thinking, ‘What can I do? What more can I do?’ to try and overplay your hand, but he didn’t at all,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“He was so smart about his decision-making, about holding onto the ball. There were times when he was beating defenders, couldn’t look for the offload, but took into consideration the type of game, how tight it was, and his decision-making under pressure was great.
“If there’s a guy that deserves to be [picked] based on his North vs South, Super Rugby Aotearoa form, and he comes on there in a pretty hostile environment – not a normal flowing game – I thought he was outstanding.”
He might have impressed off the bench in his test debut, but Caleb Clarke was left with his heart in his mouth following an injury time error.https://t.co/rWcMluiXDd
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 12, 2020
Parsons added: “I think the best example of how aware he was of the occasion and how tight the test was was every time he gets that ball on the left flank, he goes bang off his left [foot] and gets in-field.
“Then he comes off Aaron Smith’s shoulder and he runs into three big boys and you think, ‘He’s going to go back’, and then he spins out and breaks two tackles and gets behind the gainline.
“It’s little efforts like that that, for me, shows he’s on the job. He’s not playing out of emotion, he’s playing with a clear head.”
Parsons suggested Clarke’s time with the All Blacks Sevens squad at the beginning of the year may have played a significant role in his development this season.
Named in the national sevens side for the 2019-20 World Sevens Series, Clarke hardly anticipated playing at Super Rugby level this season as he eyed a place in Clark Laidlaw’s 12-man squad for the Tokyo Olympics.
Playing in the Sydney, Los Angeles and Vancouver tournaments, Clarke only returned to the Blues set-up once World Rugby cancelled the remainder of the sevens series and the Olympics were postponed by a year due to COVID-19.
However, Parsons theorised that time with the All Blacks Sevens paid dividends for both Clarke’s mental game and his relatively unheralded ability to contest in the air.
“Ever since he’s come back from sevens, his skillset and his mindset is just so sharp, and I don’t know if it is the sevens, maybe it’s just maturing or whatever, but his ability under the high ball now, it’s incredible,” Parsons said.
“That’s why I think it’s a skillset people have forgotten about with him. He is seriously good under the high ball, with defusing bombs, if he gets good escorts, he catches the ball above his head like AFL sort of style.
“For a big man, sometimes people just think, ‘That’s not part of his game’, but it’s a massive part of his game.”
That, for Parsons, is enough to warrant handing the one-cap rookie a starting place in this week’s All Blacks side for the second Bledisloe Cup match in Auckland.
Such a selection ploy would likely be at the expense of incumbent left wing George Bridge, which Parsons said would be validated due to the sparkling form Clarke is currently enjoying.
“It’s hard because Bridge is so good, Jordie [Barrett] was good yesterday, but yeah, I think he has to start,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“Just like last year when George came in for Rieko [Ioane], it was purely just based on the form thing and he was just playing well at the time. You’ve just got to get him out there because he is in super touch.”
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