New Zealand have been spoilt with great full-backs, and Don Clarke was one of them
Major teams: Waikato
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 1956-64
Test caps: 31 (31 Starts)
Test points: 207 (2T, 33C, 38P, 5DG, 2Gfm)
Rugby’s Greatest: Don Clarke
He wouldn’t have troubled Christian Cullen, one of his Kiwi successors, in a foot race but class come in different packages. And Don Clarke was class all right.
At 6ft 3in and over 17st, Clarke was a huge man for his era, and his powerful frame provided an intimidating sight for opponents. But his forte was his kicking – whether from hand or toe-kicking off the ground – and it’s this facet of his game that edges him into our Top 10 at the expense of another great All Black, Bob Scott.
Clarke scored 781 points in 89 games for New Zealand – a national record until surpassed by Grant Fox in 1988 – and a host of opponents had reason to curse his interventions.
In 1959, the Lions scored four (three-point) tries to nil at Dunedin but lost controversially to six Clarke penalties. Whilst two years later in Wellington, he landed an extraordinary kick to beat France; in an 80mph gale, he aimed the ball along the 25-yard line from wide out and saw the wind take it through the posts. “It was the most unbelievable kick I’ve ever seen,” wrote the late Terry McLean.
His haul of 207 Test points includes two goals from a mark, a scoring method long since outlawed, with one 65-yard effort toppling England in 1963.
One of the few to achieve a ‘full house’ in a Test, Clarke was one of five brothers to play for Waikato. He was also a fine pace bowler, taking 117 first-class wickets for Northern Districts.
Against the 1959 Lions he became the first All Black full-back to score a Test try – in New Zealand’s 98th Test – and in eight years he was never dropped, missing just two Tests through injury. All told, he lost just four times in 31 Internationals.
Sir Wilson Whineray, Clarke’s captain in all but six of his Tests, said: “He was like a huge energy force behind you and could have a devastating effect on the opposition. He could kick them from his own ten-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.”
Don Clarke emigrated to South Africa in the 1970s and set up a tree-felling business, before passing away in Johannesburg in 2002.
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