Spurred by a training bromance with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the hunger to play his first XVs match since June, Caleb Clarke is adopting a simplistic approach to regaining form in 2022. In essence, he plans to strip back the unnecessary distractions to rekindle his love for the game.
Last year was a difficult time for many, Clarke included. From the highs of becoming a regular starter on the left edge for the Blues in 2020 and his debut test season, which featured a Lomu-like performance at Eden Park against the Wallabies, to a disappointing and disjointed 2021, Clarke has already experienced the wild fluctuations many athletes tackle during entire careers.
Some of Clarke's struggles last season could be attributed to second year syndrome as he grappled with expectations that he would replicate his breakout campaign. There was, though, the undoubted element of taking on too much. Attempting to chase Super Rugby success, the All Blacks and Olympic sevens spread Clarke too thinly.
In the end Clarke's impact with the Blues was heavily diluted. He missed selection in the Olympic sevens squad, travelling to Tokyo as a reserve, and essentially passed up a spot in the All Blacks with Sevu Reece, Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan and George Bridge used on the wings.
This year represents a fresh start and Clarke has a singular driver – to savour the chance to play again.
"If I reflect on last year I had so many things on and it felt like my attention was divided," Clarke said this week. "This year I've got one focus and that's enjoying rugby, enjoying being back with the boys. It's awesome being out of lockdown. I thrive the most when I'm around people."
As challenging as last year was, Clarke discovered plenty about himself. He's emerged out the other side with a healthy dose of perspective, and reinvigorated to re-establish his finishing prowess.
"Lockdown was a really tough period. I thought I was still going to go on tour [with the All Blacks] and even before that playing in the Olympics. To have bad hand after bad hand every time, and even Sean [Wainui] passing away just made things more tough.
"It's helped me look forward to this season and realise there's more to life than rugby. I've found that love again. If I look back at last year I put too much expectations on myself and I listened to too many people when I should've been listening to my small circle and enjoying the game.
"I'm not worried if I don't make the All Blacks, or about sevens, I just want to enjoy the game again."
Despite the setbacks, Clarke believes he will be better for the testing experiences. It's easy to forget he turns 23 in March, and has all the natural tools to extend his five tests and evolve into a world-class prospect.
"I'm very optimistic. I try to find the silver lining. Not making the Olympics or All Blacks it's just a lesson to be learned and how I can deal with things better. I don't regret it. I trust Clark [Laidlaw's] decision, and that's all you can do as a player."
Amid the uncertain Covid landscape, Clarke has given himself the best possible chance of performing by undertaking gruelling training sessions with Tuivasa-Sheck and presenting in superb physical condition – weighing around 105kg, three kilos lighter than when in the All Blacks.
"There were some hard sessions – I was crying in one of them, that's how hard it was. He was just laughing," Clarke said of linking with Tuivasa-Sheck last year.
"Rugby wise we sat down together every morning talking through different pictures. Now he's got all the coaches and Stephen [Perofeta] and Harry [Plummer]; it's awesome he's really growing in the game. He's helped me with a bit of my footwork – it's helped me on attack but I'm not sure it's helped me on defence. I'm still getting stepped here and there, but it's been good having someone of his calibre at the Blues."
Next week's first pre-season match against the Hurricanes will be Clarke's first XVs game in seven months after lockdown ended Auckland's NPC season. Following a frustrating 2021, Clarke can't wait to unleash his new frame and mindset.
"I have itchy feet. I come in every day and have to hold myself back from getting over competitive. It feels good to run around and get my work ethic up but now it's where I'll be in terms of the physicality. In terms of strength and power it's still the same. I'm excited to see how we go."