WELLINGTON • Caleb Clarke made a big impression on his first Test start for the All Blacks on Sunday but if his season had gone to plan, the left-winger would not have rolled off New Zealand’s production line of backline talent at all this year.
Instead of busting through Wallabies tacklers in Bledisloe Cup Tests, the 21-year-old was supposed to have spent his time on the international rugby sevens circuit preparing for a shot at gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, forced the cancellation of the circuit and then the postponement of the 2020 Games to next July.
Back with the Auckland Blues full-time, Clarke was one of the standout performers in the domestic Super Rugby competition and it was little surprise that he followed his father Eroni into the All Blacks.
They became the 20th father-and-son All Blacks pairing when he came off the bench for an impressive 11-minute cameo in the first Bledisloe Cup match last week in Wellington.
A less-than-convincing outing by Ian Foster’s team in that game, coupled with an injury to George Bridge, propelled Clarke into the starting line-up for the second Test on Sunday.
He was the catalyst of an improved All Blacks’ attack, with his powerful running setting up two second-half tries in a 27-7 win and earning comparisons with the late Jonah Lomu.
“I grew up watching that jersey all my life,” Clarke yesterday said of Lomu’s No. 11. “It was really special to chuck it on for the first time and let it sink in.
“I did my pregame a bit faster because I just wanted to sit and have a moment in the jersey for a little bit.”
Clarke is just the latest All Blacks power winger to terrorise defences with power and speed – Joe Rokocoko, Julian Savea and Rieko Ioane have all sparkled in the jersey over the last 20 years.
He was just as punishing as his predecessors on Sunday, powering through would-be tacklers and using the speed that saw him run the 100m in 10.72 seconds when in secondary school to leave others grasping at thin air.
Foster has called for calm over his performance but was happy with how Clarke, shown on social media to be a handy pianist, was keeping a level head.
“What the world wants to say, that’s their business,” he said yesterday. “I’m really confident that he’s grounded. He’s got a lot of self-belief and self-awareness in himself.
“You’ve just got to enjoy what you do and keep growing.”