'A tough 12 months': What the Blues expect from forgotten star Caleb Clarke
The Blues have been bolstered by the headline signing of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for their 2022 season, but a couple of returning All Blacks will also add plenty of firepower as they look to build on their 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title success.
Barrett returns following a stint with Suntory Sungoliath in Japan as part of a sabbatical deal that saw him miss the entire Blues season this year.
He came back into the squad in time for the final of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman after guiding Suntory to a runner-up finish in the Top League, but didn’t feature in the Blues’ victory over the Highlanders at Eden Park.
Clarke, the All Blacks’ breakout star of last year, returns after his switch to sevens for the Tokyo Olympics. Despite missing out on the All Blacks Sevens Olympic squad, he travelled with the team as injury cover, but didn’t play in Japan.
His non-selection in the national sevens team contributed to a difficult year for the 22-year-old, but Blues head coach Leon Macdonald is eager to settle him back into the squad to help him reach the great heights he achieved in 2020.
“Caleb’s just got to get back and get settled again. It was a bit of a topsy turvy year, with the sevens, with the XVs and then in Japan, in MIQ, and now in lockdown for a long time,” MacDonald told media on Monday.
“It’s been a tough 12 months for Caleb. I think the familiarity of the guys he knows at the Blues, in the Blues environment, has been really good, he’s enjoying his training. He looks in fantastic nick, he’s really motivated.”
MacDonald said Clarke is working with coaches and teammates to expand his game, which no other Super Rugby defence wants to see considering what he showed he can do with ball-in-hand for the Blues and All Blacks last year.
After the disappointments of 2021, and now looking at the All Blacks from the outside-in, 2022 shapes as a big year for Clarke to put himself back in the frame for test rugby.
“We’ve got a lot of depth in the outside backs and that competition is going to bring the best out of him. It’s going to keep pushing him,” MacDonald said.
“He’s already found a little working group, he’s working alongside a couple of guys, they are doing extras.
“He’s working hard on his skillset and he’s talking about how we can evolve his game to become even more of a threat. These sort of conversations in the time that we’ve got is really important.
“It’s an exciting year for Caleb, probably a chance for him to take a bit of pressure off himself and just get back on the grass and play a bit of rugby again.”
Having won back his first-five position with the All Blacks Barrett will return to the Blues as their number one option after the departure of Otere Black to Japan.
“All the All Blacks will have managed minutes and have potentially, rest weeks,” said Macdonald.
“That’s just standard now, that’s the landscape we live in, we’re used to that. It’s because of the year that they’ve had, finishing up now, a lot of other players just haven’t had to do that.
“We want them playing in New Zealand happy, and staying in New Zealand as long as they can so it makes sense to us.
“There’s nothing unusual in his [Barrett’s] contract, he’s here to play. He’s already indicated he’s coming back to the Blues and is talking about our season here already.
“He’s excited about coming back and pulling on the Blues jersey, which is really exciting.”
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