Don Clarke - 'The Boot' bigger than his legend

By David Leggat

20 All Black Greats: 13. Don Clarke. Born: November 10, 1933 in Pihama,Died: December 29, 2002 in Johannesburg,All Black debut: 1956 v South Africa at Christchurch,Last test 1964 v Australia at Wellington,Tests: 31,Games: 58,Total points 781 (8t, 173c, 120p, 15dg, 2 goals from a mark),All Black number 580.
Don Clarke scores against the Lions in 1959. Photo / NZ Herald Archives
Don Clarke scores against the Lions in 1959. Photo / NZ Herald Archives

With wall-to-wall live rugby coverage now, it must be challenging for anyone under 30 to imagine life without the square box serving the insatiable need for the football fix.

There was a time when radio was the only medium and players assumed heroic proportions as commentators waxed lyrical on their every deed.

Sometimes the legend was larger than the player actually warranted, but there was no mistaking Don Clarke's impact on the game.

No player was bigger in the public consciousness through the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s than "The Boot".

Pick your top 20 greatest All Blacks of all time.

Not only was he a hugely imposing figure, the biggest fullback of his, or any era, to that time.

He was also a bona fide matchwinner, from the time he made his test debut in the epic third test against South Africa at Lancaster Park in 1956.

He kicked the ball prodigious distances, whether from the hand, drop kicking or off the ground.

By the time Clarke ascended to the All Blacks, fullback had become a fabled position in New Zealand rugby. George Nepia and Bob Scott had laid the foundation; Clarke contributed another, distinct layer of greatness.

He came out of Te Aroha College and into the Waikato team at 17. In his first year he kicked two penalties on a heavy ground to help lift the shield off North Auckland, as Northland was then known.

Clarke could not have picked a more nerve-rattling occasion for his test debut.

He had helped Waikato beat the Boks in their tour opener of 1956 14-10 and with the series at 1-all, Clarke kicked two penalties and a conversion in a momentous 17-11 win which set up the first series victory over South Africa.

From then until 1964 he was the 1.88m, 108kg rock at the back, his stabbing toe-kick style establishing records for most points in test rugby, as well as being first-class rugby's heaviest scorer by a mile.

Clarke missed just two tests, both against Australia in 1958 and 1964, both through injury.

The Clarke legend included key roles in several tests which remain among the auspicious in All Black history.

Clarke's world-record six penalties beat the Lions' four tries in the first test at Carisbrook in 1959.

It left a sour taste, that the free-running cavaliers from the north had been done in by the grim roundheads of the south, abetted by some questionable refereeing.

His try a minute from time in the second test at Athletic Park, sealed by a dramatic dive to the line, also won the match.

A year later, Frank McMullen's try in the corner in the final minute of the third test at Bloemfontein meant Clarke's conversion would draw the game 11-all and keep alive the chances of the All Blacks' first series win in South Africa.

No problem. As a teammate trotted back past Clarke, who was lining up the shot, the story goes he wished him luck.

"Don't worry, it's as good as over," came the reply, before the ball sailed between the posts.

In 1961, in the test of the famous Athletic Park gale sweeping down the ground, the uprights swaying dramatically, Clarke's conversion of Kel Tremain's try, across the 25-yard line and swerving at near right-angles between the uprights, got New Zealand a 5-3 win over France.

His knee began playing up on the 1963-64 tour of Britain, Ireland and France and the following home series against Australia proved to be his last.

All five Clarke brothers achieved fame of a different sort, lining up for Waikato against Thames Valley in 1961. That year Clarke, brother Ian, Colin and Stan Meads played against France, the first time two sets of brothers appeared in the same test XV.

Clarke was also a more-than-capable pace bowler for Northern Districts. His first-class record of 117 wickets in 27 matches, at an average of 21.14, bears favourable comparison with the best of his time.

Pick your top 20 greatest All Blacks of all time.

Next Monday nzherald.co.nz will compare our experts' list with the public's.

- NZ Herald

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