Todd Stanger Clever
Age 28 (16 January 1983)
Birthplace Palm Springs
Weight 15st 3lb
Height 6ft 4in
Club Suntory, Japan
USA caps 33
USA points 40 (eight tries)
His looks make him recognisable, his personality makes him likeable, but what sets Todd Clever apart is his playing ability.
Playing for the USA Sevens team in Hong Kong recently, USA 15s captain Todd Clever placed a Japanese flag patch on his knee brace. The gesture was, of course, a nod of solidarity with the people of Japan, who had just suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Clever did it because he has been playing rugby in Japan for Suntory and wanted to make some gesture of support, but he also did it because he knew, without any hubris, that Japanese fans would be watching.
People are always watching whenever Clever is around. There are any number of reasons why. “It’s the hair,” says one former team-mate, grinning. Maybe it’s just that he gives a good interview and so has a media profile. He’s certainly recognisable, and as the first American ever to play Super Rugby, his rugby talent is notable, too.
Clever embodies the ideal of the globetrotting, genial rugby player. He has an easy, casual way with fans and has been known to display just enough theatrics on the field to get crowds excited, but after any run-in with an opponent he’s quick to offer a handshake and a smile – it’s all in the name of fun.
That, in fact, is Clever’s approach to the game, always. Rugby football is fun. He may be the most high-profile Eagle, he may be the USA captain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a life that sends you all over the globe, allowing you to mix with some of the greatest athletes in the world.
Clever started playing at College Park RFC in California as a scrawny teenager. He didn’t throw himself into the sport at first, but the prospect of a tour to the UK in his second season (and some prompting from his parents) pushed him to work a little harder at the game. The tour itself was a critical moment for Clever, as he was drawn into the sport’s camaraderie, something that means a great deal to him.
That social nature remained with him through two seasons with North Harbour in New Zealand, two with the Lions in South Africa in 2009 and 2010, and now at his latest home, Suntory in Japan. He’s a fan’s player, but still a player.
“He’s a little bit like Godzilla in Japan,” says Dan Payne, who played with Clever for the Eagles in 2007 and is now the national side’s skills coach.
“He has this persona and he understands that. He can come across as this beach boy, but he also works enormously hard. He just puts everything he has into his game.”
With the Lions, Clever threw himself into every chance he got, giving 100% every time. He might make a mistake, he reasoned, but he wasn’t going to make a mistake by being soft or lazy. “At the highest level sometimes you only have 20 minutes to make your mark, so you have to take your opportunities,” he said. “And that’s what I tell the guys on the team. You may not have much of an opportunity, but once you get it you’ve got to take it.”
Fans and team-mates noticed, and as Clever became more relaxed and polished his game, he was able to translate that approach to the national team. The USA head coach Eddie O’Sullivan chose Clever to be his captain because he’s their most dynamic and well-known player. Being a leader, though, doesn’t always come easily.
“He’s developed as a player and matured immensely,” says Payne. “I’ve seen him mature quite a bit, on and off the field, and being around people like Jake White, Eddie Jones and George Gregan (at Suntory) doesn’t hurt either.
“What the Eagles players see is the aggression in everything he does. When he fends someone off, it’s intense. When he makes a tackle and gets a chance to finish it, he does.”
And he doesn’t forget his fans. Payne runs a camp for young rugby players every summer, and Clever usually helps. Last summer he couldn’t be there as he was training with Suntory. Still, every night past midnight he was on Skype, talking to the players at the camp. The kids would come in waves to talk with the USA captain, a professional rugby player.
“What he told them was that he might be on the Eagles team now, but he started just like them – he was a kid in school who loved rugby,” says Payne. ‘I’m the same as you’ is what Clever was saying – except everyone knows he’s not.
This article appeared in Part 1 of our Rugby World Cup Supplement.
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