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After a challenging 2021, Blues wing Caleb Clarke is getting warm and fuzzy about his rugby again this year.
After an unforgiving 2021, Blues wing Caleb Clarke is just looking to rediscover his love of rugby – and has a new best friend and a few pounds he’s lost to help him get there.
The 22-year-old who was the All Blacks find of 2020 but devoted a fateful 2021 season chasing Olympic gold, spoke to the media for the first time since his disappointment at the Tokyo Games after Tuesday’s Blues practice and presented in not only excellent physical condition, but also quite a tight headroom.
During a candid discussion, the big wing, who played five tests for Ian Foster’s All Blacks in 2020, revealed that he’d lost about 4 pounds during an elongated off-season training regimen, formed a close bond with star-cross-code signing Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and did not regret his decision to go all-in for an Olympic medal last year – only to miss the final cut for Clarke Laidlaw’s team for the Games.
“When I think back to last year, I had so many things on my mind and it felt like my attention was divided,” Clarke said of a challenging year that ended with him locked up and unable to play in the NPC. “So this year I only have one focus: enjoying my rugby and enjoying being back with the boys. It’s been great to be out of the lockdown and into a different system where we can be with people. That’s where I thrive best, around people who get the best out of me.”
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Clarke confirmed that he and former Warriors and Kiwis star Tuivasa-Sheck had put together the absolute best when they got close during last year’s lockdown – with their exhausting training sessions leading to him dropping off his 2020 playing weight of 108kg. to about 104 kg for the new season.
“I got to train with Roger when that picnic rule came out and there were some tough sessions. I cried in one of them – it was that hard.”
Clarke confirmed they had an open book approach to their simple session – he would teach the new rugby convert all he could about the game, and vice versa,
“Our first session we had Roger, Danny Tusitala (who is now in America) and myself, with his brother and cousin there for extra songs. It was fortunate that Danny was there, because he helped Roger with his death. That’s how we built our relationship.
“When we were together, we used to talk to different pictures every morning… now he has all the coaches, guys like Steven (Perofeta) and Harry (Plummer), and he’s really growing his game. He’s got helped me with my footwork and it’s just good to have someone of his caliber here at the Blues.”
When asked where he helped the Tuivasa-Sheck game (the 28-year-old hasn’t played rugby since his school days at Otahuhu College), a smile appeared on Clarke’s face.
“Hopefully the physical side. He had to use me as a tackle ram. It was good to have some contact with him during that lockdown period, and we also worked hard on the ruck… we worked on the little things like the jackal, and getting over the ball and through the ruck.”
It all contributed to Clarke getting pretty positive for 2022, all things considered.
“I reflected in lockdown. That was a tough period. I thought I’d still go on tour (with the All Blacks]and even before that in the Olympics…and every time having bad hand after bad hand, and even Sean [Wainui] death only made it more difficult.
“But it has helped me realize that there is more to life than just rugby. I’m enjoying it here, and that’s the most important thing… I’ve found that love for the game again. Looking back on last year, I set myself too many expectations and listened to too many people, when I should have just listened to my small circle and just enjoyed the game.
“That’s the focus now. I don’t worry if I don’t make the All Blacks or something. I just want to enjoy the game again.”
And there is certainly no regret.
“I’m very optimistic,” he responds. “I’m trying to find the silver lining. I won’t make it to the Olympics, it’s a lesson to learn how to do things better.”
With that slimmer frame that will allow him to get on the pitch better, Clarke is optimistic he can combine his traditional strength game with even greater work speed and efficiency when he finally returns to the rugby field – likely in the preseason of the Blues opening game against the Hurricanes in Takapuna on February 5.
“I’m excited,” says the young man Foster will keep a close eye on. “I haven’t played fifteen since the last Super Rugby Aotearoa match and haven’t played any form of rugby since June. I have itchy feet. Every day in training I have to stop myself from getting too competitive… I don’t want to yell at people, but I want to win, and there’s just that competitiveness and the eagerness to get out there.”
Love is well and truly back. Expect the on-field carnage to follow.