After setting his sights on claiming Olympic gold with the New Zealand sevens team Caleb Clarke has opened up on his difficult Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with the Blues, revealing he carried ankle ligament damage throughout this year.
Clarke kept his decision to skip the trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition, and several All Blacks tests, in favour of pursuing Olympic gold close to his chest, having made his mind up during the Tri-Nations tournament last year.
"I made that call last year while we were in Australia," Clarke said of his decision that was confirmed on Monday. "I didn't expect to be an All Black last year so that made it tough.
"The Olympics is such a pinnacle event. I'd love to come to the end of my career and look back at the amazing times I got to experience and the Olympics is one of those. I'm still young, only 22, so I thought why not at the start of my career have a go at the Olympic Games and making the team to go there."
Clarke joined the 22-strong sevens squad bolstered by Chiefs wing Etene Nanai-Seturo and Highlanders fullback Vilimoni Koroi in Mount Maunganui last week to finish his Super Rugby commitments after a quiet season with the Blues.
Continued uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo Games, with Japan extending its Covid-19 state of emergency until the end of this month, did not deter Clarke from chasing the Olympic dream but his form for the Blues evoked second thoughts.
"My biggest nerves weren't around Japan or how Covid was going to go; it was more how the year went with the Blues this year. I wasn't as excited as when I first made the call to come to sevens. I felt like I wasn't playing my best; I was holding too many injuries and I didn't feel like myself during the 2021 Super season. That's where a lot of the nerves came from. Now I'm here it's a lot clearer that I'm excited to be back with all the boys."
Clarke revealed he tore several ankle ligaments in the Blues' opening match of the season against the Hurricanes on February 27. He played the next four matches before an MRI scan during the Blues' second bye week in April confirmed the extent of the injury.
"I spent the first bye week on crutches and then I was on heaps of anti-inflammatories to get my ankle running," Clarke said.
"I went through about four or five games and then they were like 'oh you tore some ligaments'. That was frustrating. The other part was the second year I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it was – trying to get off my wing and look for work and being pointed out by every team. That kind of stuff was really hindering. I don't feel like I got to show what I had in 2021.
"We had a sevens training last Thursday and that was the first time I ran around without strapping on my ankle."
Clarke's decision to join the sevens team rules him out of three All Blacks tests in July and likely three Bledisloe Cup clashes in August. Having discussed the move with All Blacks coach Ian Foster, Clarke is comfortable taking himself out of contention for the left wing role he featured in five times in 2020.
"The All Blacks was always the ultimate dream of mine as a kid but when I had that chat with Fozzie he was really supportive of the decision – he even said how sevens helped my game as a winger.
"I'll be happy with wherever I'll be after the Olympics. If it's not with the All Blacks and I get to play Mitre 10 that'll be cool as well. I'll see what happens when we get to the end of it."
Time on the sevens circuit propelled Clarke into a breakout campaign with the Blues that then catapulted him into the All Blacks last year. He hopes the abbreviated game again proves a rejuvenating launchpad, and he's already shed two kilograms to prepare for the lift in intensity.
"The sevens environment I believe is the best in the world when it comes to culture; the boys are so welcoming, the staff and management are all awesome. That's what ultimately brought out the best in me when I had my time here. I believe it can do the same.
"We've already had team meetings and acknowledged what happened in 2016. A lot of the boys that were in that team are really looking forward to having a chance to right those wrongs. Now it's a matter of hopefully getting picked."
New Zealand sevens coach Clark Laidlaw will trim his squad from 22 to 13, which includes one travelling reserve, by June 29 when athletes must be nominated to the NZ Olympic Committee.
In their first international games in over a year, the men's and women's teams will play six matches against Australia from May 21-23 in Auckland.
Laidlaw will then take 18 players to Australia for one final tournament against Fiji and Australia in mid-June before naming his Olympic squad.
Reputations aside, Laidlaw is not guaranteeing anyone selection.
"I can see a slightly more mature Caleb than we've had over the last two or three years," Laidlaw said. "Our challenge is not to put too much expectation on this initial period. Once we get through this first hit out against Australia that'll show us where he's at.
"If we didn't think they could come in and add to our group we would have left them where they were. We're bringing them here to really challenge for selection but they've got some boys in-front of them so it's not a forgone conclusion around them making the final 13. They understand that.
"The transition and integration feels really smooth and now it's up to everybody to stick their hands up and see how well they can play over the next six weeks."