By D.J. CAMERON
The death of Don Clarke, the fabled fullback, has removed one of the giants of All Blackdom.
From 1951 until 1964 Clarke played a larger-than-life-size part in New Zealand rugby, during which time he grew from a stripling 17-year-old Ranfurly Shield winner to a heavy, powerhouse goalkicker.
He was the ultimate matchwinner. He dominated the game and quit the centre-stage only when his knees, and their extensive surgery, could no longer be trusted to carry his hefty frame through the battles that were All Black matches of his time.
For much of those 13 years Clarke dominated provincial and international rugby through the deadly accuracy and range of his goal-kicking, his cannon-shell punting and, occasionally, his majestic passage into a three-quarter movement rather like a barquentine under full sail.
As a novice he hefted two penalty goals out of the muddy, gluey surface of Rugby Park in Whangarei to win the shield for Waikato, 6-0, against North Auckland.
Five years later the now-mighty boot sent the first cannon-shells among the 1956 Springboks as he kicked eight points in their tour-opening match against Waikato, a famous 14-10 victory in which the Clarke contribution included a conversion, a penalty and a left-foot drop goal from 37m.
Clarke had another eight points in his first test as the All Blacks won the third test of the four-match series, and five in the fourth as the All Blacks took this most intense, historic series 3-1.
From that point until his knees gave up their battle to propel a frame which at one stage tipped 18 stone (114.3kg) - and made him the heaviest All Black in history at the time - Clarke became labelled ungraciously as The Boot. He was the dominant force in world rugby.
For years the All Blacks had the security of Clarke's prodigious goalkicking whenever their limited points-scoring scope had them in danger of defeat.
Never more so than when the 1959 British Lions scored four tries for 17 points in the first test at Carisbrook, and The Boot hammered over six penalties for the winning 18 points.
That established Clarke, to those outside New Zealand, as the villain of world rugby.
Just as recent golf theory may be centred on how to stop Tiger Woods destroying the longest, toughest courses, so in the 1950s and 1960s rugby boffins not a 100 miles from Twickenham tried to arrange the laws and habits of the game and referees to lessen, if not remove, the threat that Clarke's boot and the implacable All Black methods would dominate world rugby.
When playing for Waikato Clarke also had to contend with tactics designed to blunt his broadsword - match balls might be soaked in water overnight and be half-inflated at match-time. And Clarke's usual sunny nature took a decisive about-turn the day an All Black team-mate, from an opposing province, kicked him unconscious.
There was further drama when the Waikato Rugby Union magnified a minor faux pas by Clarke into such a fuss that Clarke and his All Black brother Ian had to provide a muted apology to the Waikato union before they could retain their places in Waikato, and future All Black teams.
The Clarkes of Waikato were a substantial sporting clan. At one stage all five brothers - Don, Ian, Doug, Graeme and Brian - played in one match for Waikato.
Like Don, Ian was a distinguished All Black, later a fine first-class referee and eventually president of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.
Don played cricket for Auckland and then Northern Districts as a formidable medium-fast bowler, going close to a national trial, and Doug kept wicket and batted handsomely for ND.
Don Clarke's larger-than-life proportions worked against after rugby. No taller poppy was so ruthlessly humbled as was Clarke when charged with a trivial shoplifting offence involving a 70c packet of sticking plasters from a North Shore supermarket in 1970.
The magistrate was man enough to play down the affair, no guilt was left with Clarke - but Clarke, who was led sobbing from the court after the charge was dismissed - was so chastened that he looked elsewhere for life with his wife, Patsy.
There were old and close friendly foes in South Africa, and Clarke settled comfortably in business far from the triumphs, and traumas, of his great rugby career.
Clarke, inducted into rugby's International Hall of Fame last year, was the last and among the greatest of the old-style All Black fullbacks, although he may have lacked some of the youthful flair and passion that George Nepia possessed in 1924-25, or the olde-worlde style of Billy Wallace at the dawn of the 20th century.
As a big and sometimes bulky man Clarke could not hope to match the elasticity and darting speed of Bob Scott - which has been returned to our game, in spades, by Christian Cullen.
But Clarke had no equal as a goal-kicker. He kicked with his toe, apparently stone-age compared with modern marvels of the instep kick.
But none of them had Clarke's kicking power, and many a fancy back painfully counted his ribs after thinking he could dance out of Clarke's bear-hug tackles.
With the modern synthetic rugby ball, kickers now expect goals from 40-50m.
The balls of Clarke's day were leather and on wet days became heavy and slippery. A team-mate (usually brother Ian) had to hold it for conversion and goal-from-mark attempts, lowering it into the hole at the last second. And there were no kicking tees.
Yet from 60 plus old-fashioned yards (55 m) Clarke's massive right leg had the power to get kicks between the posts.
He could pot goals with long drop-kicks from either foot, and his forwards, in their 10-man-rugby fashion, blessed the man when he regularly chewed off great chunks of touchline with his towering punts.
Modern goalkickers such as Andrew Mehrtens are 50m marksmen, but thinking back, you tend to regard Clarke as the man to do the job.
People used to say that if their life-savings depended on one batsmen scoring a century they would choose England's Geoffrey Boycott.
It was the same with Donald Barry Clarke. The title-deeds would be safest if you had Clarke in the shoot-out, anywhere along the halfway line, and 10 yards further back if necessary. He was a one-off.
By D.J. CAMERON