Sunday, March 3, 2024

COMMENT: Marvellous Clarke destroys Aussie Matilda’s waltz

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Caleb Clarke finished his second test and first start with 138 metres, three line breaks, 12 tackle busts and two offloads from eight carries. Photo Rugbypass

If Clarke Kent can transform into Superman, Caleb Clarke must be Captain America after his magnificent performance in the All Blacks 27-7 second Bledisloe Cup triumph on Sunday.

Incredibly, the muscular 21-year-old caused 12 of the Wallabies’ 40 missed tackles, five in one electrifying, stampeding charge.

This was Clarke’s first start after an impressive short appearance off the reserves bench in the Wellington test.

Not since a teenage Bryan Williams bewildered opponents with his dazzling sidestep on the All Blacks 1970 tour of South Africa and Jonah Lomu’s power at the 1995 World Cup left opponents and fans awestruck, has a New Zealand wing risen to such heights in so short a time.

No wonder head coach Ian Foster was keen to keep in check expectations of Clarke repeating this performance every time he receives the ball. But there is no doubt this humble son-of-a-gun, Eroni, has the X factor.

The oft quoted, “One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity,” was realised once more when Clarke took advantage of George Bridge’s injury.

Bridge is a smart wing who ticks all the boxes and has done his country proud.

Clarke is not yet as complete but his acceleration and explosive power makes him an excitement machine.

He also has the happy knack of a champion centre by drawing two defenders into the tackle before passing it to an unmarked try-scorer.

However the national selectors will be content to allow him to grow his international apprenticeship as a wing.

Great, too, to see Beauden Barrett return to his best in this test with some scintillating runs.

Apart from Clarke, other All Black rookies to front a stern Australian challenge were lock Tupou Vaa’i , loosehead prop Alex Hodgman  and Hoskins Sotutu. All did well, especially 19-year-old Vaa’i who had to fill the big boots of vastly experienced Sam Whitelock from the start.

Considering their inexperience, it was heartening confirmation of the depth that exists within the New Zealand game.

With rugged Sam Cane having another blinder alongside Ardie Savea and Shannon Frizell, the loose forwards combined nicely.

Understandable Wallabies coach Dave Rennie was disappointed at his team’s poor defence and ball retention after their robust effort in the 16-all drawn first test. With two more Bledisloe Cup tests to be played on home soil, they will be determined to turn the tables.

They have some fine players but the loss of injured playmaker second-five Matt To’omua limited the attacking options of powerful three-quarters Marika Koroibete, Hunter Paisami and Filipo Daugunu. So, too, did the rock-solid defence of Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue.

First-five James O’Connor can be a dangerous attacker but lacks the vision of a To’omua or Richie Mo’unga.

Meanwhile while Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin couldn’t retain his Bathurst crown with a disappointing fifth, Shane van Gisbergen kept the New Zealand flag flying high by winning the prestigious event on Sunday.

It was a splendid performance from the former St Kentigern College student who withstood the strong challenge of Cameron Waters.

Australia still have several excellent drivers but Kiwis McLauglin and van Gisbergen continue to fly high in their backyard.

  •  Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer


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