10.00am



Former All Black fullback Don Clarke has died in Johannesburg at the age of 69.



Clarke, who had been diagnosed with melanoma nearly two years ago, died at 11pm NZDT last night.



Known as "The Boot", Clarke made All Blacks history with his classical kicking style, which saw him place the ball upright and kick it square-on with his traditional square-toed boot.

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He followed through with his head down and his left arm raised skywards in a style which brought him 781 points for the All Blacks in 89 matches, including 31 tests, in a career lasting from 1956 to 1964.



Wilson Whineray, a central figure in a golden era of New Zealand rugby, maintained during his career that two players dominated the game not only in this country, but throughout the world.



"Colin Meads and Don Clarke were the two towering figures of rugby in the early 1960s," Whineray said.



"Colin, of course, has become one of the icons of New Zealand rugby, the benchmark All Black.



"But Don was just as big a name, and influence. He was a huge fellow for a fullback, and with that magnificent kicking boot of his, it was tremendously reassuring for we forwards to know he was behind us.



"I imagine opposing teams spent a lot of time in their pre-match talks discussing how to deal with Don, because he really was a match-winner."



Clarke, the scourge of Springbok, Lions and Wallabies teams, had been battling a new enemy -- cancer -- since late March 2001. He underwent a course of chemotherapy in Johannesburg after surgery to remove two lymph glands and also trialled a new French drug in a quest to stop the spread of melanoma.



Perhaps because he has lived in South Africa for almost 25 years, Clarke has not received quite the public acclaim as other noted All Blacks.

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After a stint in the liquor trade as a salesman, he moved his wife Patsy and family to South Africa in 1977 and operated a tree-felling business.



"I've never regretted the move, but I'll be a New Zealander as long as my backside points to the ground. When I talk of we and us, I'm only ever referring to the All Blacks," he once said.



There was consternation when he was omitted from the initial list of inductees for the Sports Hall of Fame, an oversight that was rectified in 1995.



When Clarke retired in 1965, he had set several points-scoring records which it was predicted would never be broken.



He had scored 1851 points in first class rugby (in 226 matches), 781 for New Zealand (in 89 matches between 1956-64) and 207 in tests, all records that have been gradually eclipsed.



Then there were his individual triumphs, such as the first test against the 1959 Lions when his six penalties won the test 18-17 for the All Blacks.



Or his incredible total of 163 points on the 1957 tour of Australia. Or the day he landed a 77-metre goal at Te Kuiti.



Or his match-winning conversion against France at Athletic Park in 1961, kicked into a galeforce wind, which people still talk about.



Clarke was like a juggernaut. From his test debut against the Springboks in 1956, until his forced retirement because of a knee injury, he was a colossus of world rugby.



These days the advent of round-the-corner kickers and better quality balls and fields have meant many of his records have been erased, improbable as that seemed 30 years ago.



But what will never be forgotten was the way Clarke imposed himself on a game, and the opposition.



Three minutes into his first test, in 1956, he kicked a 41m sideline penalty at Christchurch against South Africa. That show of temperament gave New Zealand an inkling of what they would later regard as routine.



"We knew straight away he was the bloke," said prop Kevin Skinner, who played that match against South Africa.



"You could just tell Don was a big match player. He belonged in international rugby."



Added Meads: "There was a tendency to disregard Clarke's ability as a player and to regard him as merely a kicking machine but he was a fine field player with good positional sense, unworldly hands and he was a very difficult man to beat."



Clarke was, usually, the heaviest man in the All Black team, and weighed up to 111kg. With his bulk, he was bound to suffer injuries and, towards the end of his career, he did have to miss a few matches.



There were always question marks about his ability to get down to the ball on the ground, to run fast enough to cut off opposing wingers, and to keep a New Zealand backline movement flowing.



But with Clarke, appearances could be deceptive. He was a talented ball player; he was a good pace bowler who played first-class cricket from 1951-63. At 1.88m he brought the ball down from a good height and had plenty of stamina.



Clarke scored eight tries for New Zealand and didn't concede much at all on defence.



Whineray, who captained him in all but six of his 31 tests, said: "On the field he was like a huge energy force behind you. Even when he missed a kick, it could have a devastating effect on the opposition.



"He could kick them from his own 10-yard line, and we'd find opposition hookers were afraid to move, and that loose forwards would stay attached to scrums. He inhibited the whole opposition."



Clarke was born in Pihama, Taranaki, in 1933. When he was about 10, his family moved to Waikato. He was always big for his age and actually played netball for two seasons when no age-group rugby teams could accommodate his size.



He served notice of his rugby ability as early as 1951 when, aged 17, he lifted two penalties from the mud at Rugby Park, Whangarei, to help Waikato wrest the Ranfurly Shield from North Auckland.



Once he established his test place, he was never dropped.



His deputy for five seasons, Wellington's Mick Williment, had no qualms with sitting on the bench: "He was a fantastic player, he had so much confidence and inspired a team. I never for a moment felt anyone but Don Clarke should be the All Black fullback."



Clarke came from a rugby-playing family. On one famous occasion, against Thames Valley in 1961, five brothers -- Don, Ian, Doug, Brian and Graeme -- played for Waikato.



Ian, who died in 1997 aged 66, played 83 matches including 24 tests for the All Blacks, starting his career three years ahead of Don.



Ian's death was incorporated in a tragic period of Clarke's life -- he was also involved in a road smash where his ute was crushed by a 15-tonne truck.



Restricted movement and ever-present pins and needles in both arms was the legacy of an accident which "left a huge hole in his life" by prematurely ending his ability to play golf.



Some thought Clarke could be arrogant, but team-mates disagreed and insisted there was no one who cared more about his side. What it was, they said, was tremendous enthusiasm.



Clarke's effect on rugby can be gauged by the fact that when he was in his prime many called for points for penalties to be reduced.



He laughed about that.



"What must they be saying now? In my day, if I ever had more than eight kicks at goal, it would be a shock.



"Grant Fox and these modern fellows have unbelievable accuracy, no two ways about that. But I'd have loved to have as many kicks as they get."



Also, the different conditions make comparisons impossible between kickers of different eras.



"Grounds today don't retain water. Even after days of rain, they are playable. You don't often see a sea of mud. And I'd like to use the ball of today. They're so much lighter."



Another factor is that kickers now have tees for their place kicks.



"I once asked Gary Player what difference a tee for every fairway shot would make in golf, and he thought he'd be five shots a round better if he never played out of the rough. You could make the same comparison with kicking."



Clarke and Patsy made an emotional return to New Zealand in August last year for a reunion with 70 old team-mates at Eden Park.



As news of his illness spread, thousands of wellwishers posted messages on a dedicated website, a response that overwhelmed him.



Clarke remained an avid watcher of the sport, though he did lament the impact of professional fouls on the modern game, advocating a five-point penalty shot in front of the posts for serious infringements.



He also echoed the thoughts of the old brigade when he questioned the commitment of some players in the professional era.



"They only think they are committed for 80 minutes... they should be very proud and honoured to represent their country, but sometimes I wonder."



Lane Penn, a former New Zealand Rugby Union selector and president, said he was saddened by the news of Clarke's death.



"I was at school when he played in that 1956 match against the Springboks -- he had a huge match," Penn said.



"He was an icon of our time. I met him recently, he was facing up to his illness with great courage and determination."



Former All Blacks kicking ace Grant Fox, who set a number of New Zealand and international scoring records in the early 1990s, said he was only three when Clarke ended his international career.



"When you are from a rugby family and then get into the All Blacks environment you obviously learn the All Blacks history," Fox told NZPA.



"He had a phenomenal boot in him. He wasn't only accurate but he kicked a long way.



"He was a big player for a fullback and it would have been interesting to see him play in today's environment because he would have been devastating coming into the backline.



"I met him when he was here (Auckland) and he said it (illness) was the hardest test he was facing.



"He said it was the toughest battle in his life and he was very determined to fight it."



NZRU chairman and former All Blacks captain Jock Hobbs said Clarke was "a true legend" of All Black rugby.



"His contribution to All Black and New Zealand rugby has been very significant."



Clarke was honoured by about 70 former team-mates at Eden Park last year.



"A Decade with The Boot" was staged to help raise his spirit as he battled cancer.



"After being away for so long to come back and see so many faces is marvellous," Clarke said then.



"I have shed a few tears because at the back of my mind I know that I have a fight. Melanoma is hard to kill and I wouldn't wish chemotherapy on my worst enemy."



The luncheon went well into the afternoon as Clarke's old mates took turns at sharing stories. The guests included All Black greats Colin Meads, Waka Nathan, Sir Wilson Whineray, Kevin Skinner and Ross Brown, and entertainer Sir Howard Morrison.



Many had stories to tell of how Clarke's accurate boot saved the day for the All Blacks and Waikato.



But it was not just his goal-kicking prowess that made Clarke such an icon.



It was his good nature, his dedication to his family and, as his All Blacks team-mate John Graham recalled, his sleeping problems.



Graham recounted Clarke's difficulties in getting a peaceful night's sleep before matches.



"I roomed with him for the first test in England. I said to him: 'You can have the double bed, you can use the toilet and the shower first and I'll make you a cup of tea in the morning but I will decide when the bloody light goes out'."



However, from 8.30pm onwards the phone calls kept coming.



"Some clown rang him from a pub in Wales. Some fanatic rang him from Scotland to talk him. So I said, right, that's it.



"I called reception and got them to cut the phone off every night at 9.30pm.



"I got you sleeping, didn't I son, so you could kick those goals."



Sir Brian Lochore remembered how Clarke's popularity was often an advantage for his team-mates.



"Don was a hero in England right through France and Britain," Lochore recalled at last year's gathering.



"When we used to go to training and functions there would always be people waiting for autographs outside," Lochore said.



"We always used to say to them, 'Don Clarke's coming, Don Clarke's coming,' and then we'd keep walking and not have to sign as many autographs."



Clarke later said: 'I'm bewildered and overwhelmed by the support I've been given.



"No one made any mention of how big this (celebration) was going to be. People know I've got cancer and I've got thousands of messages from well-wishers.



"I believe there has been a 100 per cent response from all the players who received invitations.



"It's unbelievable. I'm just very moved."



- NZPA