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'We need to get the ball in his hands': Danger-man Caleb Clarke back in black

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

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After sitting out the entirety of the 2021 Test season, Caleb Clarke is finally set to make a return to the black jersey in Mbombela this weekend.

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Clarke burst onto the scene for the All Blacks in 2020, making a massive impact against the Wallabies after stepping into the starting No 11 role in place of the injured George Bridge.

Just 21 years old at the time, Clarke proved almost impossible for the Australians to bring to the ground with the young wing causing massive problems out wide.

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Last year, however, Clarke struggled in the formative stages of Super Rugby thanks to some injury niggles and then made the decision to focus on rugby sevens with the hope of featuring at the Olympics.

While Clarke travelled to Japan as the first reserve for the men’s side, he spent the entirety of the campaign sequestered inside his hotel and never got to take the field.

Clarke bounced back in a big way for the Blues this year, however, and was in tremendous form for the Super Rugby Pacific finalists throughout much of their campaign, but missed the last month of the competition with a hamstring strain. Said strain also prevented him from featuring for the All Blacks in July but now, back fit and firing, Clarke has been handed the No 11 jersey for the All Blacks’ first game of the Rugby Championship.

Thanks to Clarke’s fizzing personality, it’s perhaps taken longer than head coach Ian Foster would have liked to get the blockbusting wing back on the pitch.

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“It’s great having him back,” Foster said after revealing his side to take on the Springboks. “There’s no doubt there’s a few niggles that kept a few people out in July. In Caleb’s case, he’s got a hamstring [issue].

“He’s an absolute fidget, he can’t keep still. He’s always dancing or bouncing or doing something, which is probably not the best personality to deal with a hamstring strain. So we’ve sort of put a leash down, tied him on the ground and told him to sit still for a while but he’s ready to go.”

Having not played Test rugby in so long – and not against any sides other than Australia or Argentina – Foster noted that while Clarke might not immediately be back to his best, he was an important cog in the All Blacks’ machine.

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“He’s feeling good, he’s infectious, but he hasn’t played international rugby for a long time,” said Foster. “Through the decisions that were made with him last year meant that he basically sat in the hotels and did nothing for about four months.

“The key thing for him is just to come back, put a smile on his face and let him be himself. He’s a quality winger. We need to get the ball in his hands and we need to get him involved and if that happens, there’ll be a few more good moments than bad ones, I think.”

Crusaders Leicester Fainga’anuku and Sevu Reece were both used on the left wing throughout July but Clarke’s added height and ability under the high ball makes him the perfect foil to the flurry of kicks that will inevitably come the All Blacks’ way via the boot of South African scrumhalf Faf de Klerk.

Saturday’s match is due to kick off at 5:05pm SAST from Mbombela Stadium in the city of Mbombela.

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