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Caleb Clarke could not hold back the emotions as he celebrated his All Blacks starting debut with family.
Caleb Clarke’s Nana succeeded where a team full of angry Wallabies failed, and turned the All Blacks’ latest destructive weapon in the famous No 11 jersey into a quivering mess.
The 21-year-old Aucklander had a memorable starting debut for the All Blacks on Sunday at Eden Park when he produced a virtuoso performance on the same ground where his watching father, Eroni, carved his name as a stellar utility back for Auckland, the Blues and the All Blacks and in the same jersey that was synonymous with his idol, the late, great Jonah Lomu.
Caleb Clarke starred for the All Blacks on his run-on debut.
Clarke, a 107kg powerhouse, had hinted at his metre-eating capabilities seven days earlier when he impressed with a late cameo off the bench in the disappointing 16-16 draw in Bledisloe I.
That saw him promoted to starting duty this week, possibly helped by the season-ending pectoral injury suffered by George Bridge, and the result was a rampaging display in an important 27-7 victory for Ian Foster’s All Blacks.
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Clarke’s imprint was all over this much-improved display of Bledisloe redemption and at the end of his day’s work, round the 67th minute, many in the crowd rose to their feet to salute a game-changing performance, if ever they had seen one. He had run for a match-high 123 metres at an average of 15.4m a carry. He broke no fewer than 10 Wallaby tackles (five on one marauding 50m run to set up Ardie Savea’s try). He featured prominently in half of the All Blacks’ four five-pointers.
All on not the best night’s sleep.
“I was still nervous, that was the funny thing,” he said after admitting to being beset by a few anxious moments before his debut last week. “I had quite a broken sleep, and was waking up with feelings of excitement and nervousness. It was just real awesome.
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Caleb Clarke shares a special moment with his father Eroni after his starting debut on Eden Park.
“This morning a lot of the boys told me when you get the ball, just run. You don’t have to think about anything else. And when you’re on defence, just tackle. That’s pretty much all I had in mind today.
“It was a lot of fun out there. It was real cool putting on this special jersey on home soil in a place I grew up in. I’m just real happy.”
As was his coach, Ian Foster, who was doing his best afterwards to play down his rookie’s star turn.
Asked how high the young blockbuster’s ceiling might be, the first-year All Blacks head coach said: “I’d probably rather you didn’t paint that headline tomorrow, if you can. He’s an uncomplicated individual, has got great self-awareness, he knows what he’s good at and he believes in it. He just wants the ball and wants to run hard, and it’s quite a good thing for us to give him the ball and let him run hard.
Caleb Clarke left Wallabies in his wake throughout a triumphant starting debut for the All Blacks.
“The whole team will be thrilled for him, to see him running around and doing what he loves doing, and what we all need him to be doing. He and his family I know will be very, very proud of this day.”
You can say that again. Clarke was asked if he spotted his beaming dad in the crowd.
“I just saw his face up on the screen like half the time. I didn’t know where he was sitting, but it was just cool to have him there. The more special thing was having my Nan there in the crowd today. She has been through a lot, with her husband passing away (earlier this year).
(Clarke revealed to Stuff on match eve he writes the name of late Blues player Mike Tamoaieta and his beloved Grandpa on his wrist tape before every game and thinks about both before every performance.)
“I got to see my cousins and to share a special moment with her (his grandmother) when I got to see her. I had to wipe away a few tears … I could definitely feel my Grandpa’s presence. I wanted to just play for him. When I saw my Nana, that’s when the waterworks started.”
Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
Caleb Clarke carries messages for two special people on his wrist strapping for every match he plays.
It didn’t all go smoothly for Clarke. He had all sorts of plans around honouring his ovation when he left the field that just turned to mud.
“I think I got so caught up in the moment. I wanted to jog off and clap everyone else as well, but then I started cramping, so I had to walk. It was real cool.”
All Blacks coach Ian Foster said Beauden Barrett performed well in his role as a playmaker against the Wallabies.
The young Auckander, who only became an All Black this year because his sevens campaign got ripped away by Covid-19, said his father’s advice this week had been important.
“He had a simple message and that was just have fun, run hard and to connect with all the boys. I felt like I did that today, but at the same time I’m real excited to play again, and hopefully play for longer without cramping.”
Clarke should get his wish on October 31 in Sydney when Bledisloe III morphs into the revamped Rugby Championship Tri-Nations. Something for the Wallabies backs to lose a little sleep over.