It’s the day before the biggest moment of his young life and here Caleb Clarke is, well, just being Caleb Clarke. He’s seated at the hotel piano, tickling the ivories as he waits for a chat – hopefully not the last time he plays some sweet music this weekend.
On Sunday afternoon at 4pm on his beloved home ground of Eden Park the 21-year-old Clarke will blink away the inevitable tears of pride and start his first test for the All Blacks, just seven days after making his debut off the bench in Wellington. The key, reckons the power-packed wing (1.84m, 107kg) is going to be just doing what he does when he sits down at the piano – have some fun and run with what comes naturally.
There’s a lot to tick off with this thoroughly likeable and engaging son of a gun, who has been one of the big movers of New Zealand rugby through this tumultuous 2020 season, but the piano is as good a place as any to start. It is, after all, not every All Black who can carry a tune on the grand old instrument.
In fact, among this squad of Ian Foster’s, Richie Mo’unga, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Clarke are the three who can belt out a ditty on the keyboard. Clarke is, it is fair to say, a recent convert. He only started learning in the first lockdown. “It was during Level 3, I went down to the Mount thinking I was going to be getting ready for the sevens and I took one of the girls’ keyboards. I don’t actually know how to play chords; I just started learning songs because that’s what you do when you’re bored.”
Or when you’re ridiculously talented and things like picking up the piano off YouTube videos seem as good a way as any to while away the hours of lockdown.
“I learnt different songs but I forgot them as fast as I learnt them because I wasn’t playing piano once I came back to Auckland,” Clarke tells Stuff on the eve of Bledisloe II. “The one I was just playing was the one I spent most time on, so it actually stuck with me. That’s pretty much it.”
It’s been that sort of a year for Clarke as he’s struck the right chord wherever he’s gone. He started it tearing it up for the New Zealand sevens side on the world circuit, then unravelled a thunderous campaign for the Blues in Super Rugby Aotearoa, before being called up as a first-time All Black.
That, of course, saw him follow in the footsteps of his father Eroni, who played 155 games for Auckland, a half-century for the Blues and 10 tests for the All Blacks. Clarke is what you might call a chip off the old block, a dead ringer for the old man back in his playing day and possessing the same genial and engaging personality to boot.
Of course that’s why it was so special, and emotional, when he found out he was starting this week on the ground he thinks of as his home away from home, and in the jersey he feels such a strong connection to. He was too young to remember his father’s prime playing days, but has seen the videos and heard the stories of the footsteps he’s following.
“It’s been quite scary,” he confides. “When the team got named I felt like my whole stomach turned upside down. During the warmup, I had to ask one of our trainers, ‘bro, I need to go to the toilet. My stomach is so unsettled right now’.
“The thing that sticks out for me is just the excitement of getting to play in such a special jersey. No 11 had one of the most iconic players in the world, in Jonah Lomu, and all the greats that have played in this jersey … It’s been such a special week, and I’m not going to forget it.”
Clarke says he definitely feels a responsibility to honour the legacy of Lomu.
“He was a big part of my childhood and I know he was a big part of my Dad’s life. When he passed away it affected my Dad. He wasn’t the same for a few weeks. I feel like I have a big responsibility to do the jersey justice. It’s going to be a special feeling.”
Turns out Clarke is all about honouring legacies. His beloved ‘Grandpa’ died earlier this year, just hours before a Super Rugby clash against the Highlanders, and it was a loss that hit the young man hard.
“I always strap my wrist before the game. I write MT, which is for [former Blues player] Mikey Tamoaieta who passed away last year, and under him I write my Grandpa as well. Those are the two people I always think about.
“In the national anthem last week I started getting real teary-eyed. I kept thinking about my Grandpa when I’m standing there singing, so I just closed my eyes and stopped singing because I’m trying not to cry on national television.”
Clarke hopes he’ll handle the emotions better this week, but he can’t promise anything with so many family members in the stands and knowing what it will mean to them.
“It’s a cool occasion, getting the first start as well. Hopefully I can keep the emotions in and actually sing the whole national anthem this time. It’s such a special place … I was quite nervous about having to sort out tickets, but my parents told me, ‘let us worry about that, you just worry about playing well’. I gave the tickets to them and said ‘you guys can sort the rest’.”
Of course the call to Dad this week about the start was a special one. And very nearly a pretty public one, too.
“I texted him first, then he rang me,” says Clarke. “I was on music and my ringtone started playing out loud over the speaker. I had to quickly turn it off, as I didn’t want to answer the phone on speaker. He was just really excited, really proud. It was awesome to get to tell my parents and grandparents, and real special to get messages from them as well.”
Asked about Dad’s advice this week, a wide smile broke out over Clarke’s face.
“It’s just round being myself and playing my game,” he says. “He said even though it’s such a special occasion, at the same time it’s about doing the things you got picked for. He said do the little stuff really well, go out there and do you and have fun.”
Last week’s 11 minutes off the bench definitely whetted his appetite. “I felt that physical side, because the Aussies really brought it. I’m excited about that because I like that contact area. It just gave a cool insight into what to do, what not to do, and what I can do better.”
And Clarke, who credits his strong support network at his church and with family, friends and his partner for keeping him grounded and focused, says he’ll follow his usual preparation procedure before he runs out.
“I always write down goals before a game. Things like gain-line carries, working hard off the ball and communicating. If I do my key roles, I know I can have a game I’ll be happy with. You can build up in your head about how big of an occasion it is, but you’re playing the game you love with your friends you’ve grown up with.”
Simple. Like playing the piano off YouTube.
This content was originally published here.