The miraculous Boot
August 13, 2010
Don Clarke was ' a points-scoring colossus' © Getty Images
We have become accustomed to Colin Meads being regarded as the apotheosis of 'All Blackness', the supreme exemplar of their fabled capacity for striking fear into opponents.
But for much of his career there was another man in the black shirt who was at least as scary as Meads. He was also bigger - a bare quarter-inch shorter and a stone heavier. And he wasn't even a forward, but a fullback.
Don Clarke was a Waikato farmer who in 1956 followed elder brother Ian - a prop first capped in 1953 - into the All Black team. Since one of their their team-mates in the final two Tests of that year's epic series at home to the Springboks was back-rower Bill Clark, those matches were particularly challenging for broadcasters.
Don was a gifted ball-player who also played first-class cricket - Len Hutton, visiting with the 1955 England team reckoned him a potential Test fast bowler - but he had hard acts to follow in rugby. The standard for All Black fullbacks had been set over the previous 30 years by two supreme artists, George Nepia and Bob Scott.
Considered simply as a fullback Clarke probably was not in their class - only a handful of players in the history of the game have been - but that sharply perceptive judge Terry McLean may well have been right when he wrote in 1960 that, "he was superior to both as a match-winner; it may be that he is the greatest match-winner in the history of the game."
Clarke's fame rested firmly on his feats as a goalkicker capable of propelling the heavy leather ball massive distances - as a 13 year old he weighed 13 stone and could kick goals from halfway - with great accuracy. An old-fashioned toe-ender in technique, he was anything but an agoniser about the pressures that came with the job, saying simply: "If she misses, she misses."
Considered by modern standards his 207 points in international rugby do not look that impressive. He is now 89th on the all-time list. Daniel Carter has more than doubled his average of just under 6.7 points per match. But by the standards of his time, Clarke was a points-scoring colossus.
When he retired in 1964 the next-highest scorer in matches between the eight established rugby nations was France's Jean Prat with 90. Next on the All Black list was Scott with 74. Imagine the impact of a contemporary player who scored 2500 points in international rugby - that is how Clarke looked to his peers.
It was a career with numerous highlights, starting with kicking Waikato to the Ranfurly Shield - then New Zealand rugby's supreme prize - in 1951. Five years later his contribution to Waikato's famous victory over the 1956 Springboks propelled him into the All Black team for the last two Tests of the series, where his kicking contributed - along with Kevin Skinner's combative front row play and Peter Jones's immortal solo try at Auckland - to New Zealand's victory in perhaps the most charged of all series. It was Clarke who in 1959 landed six penalty goals to beat a Lions side who had scored four tries to none, but lacked a kicker of his range and precision.
The All Blacks lost only four of the 31 matches he played for them. Yet perhaps the single greatest afternoon of that astonishing career came in the middle of a five-match spell that produced three of those defeats, plus a draw. It was 50 years ago this week - on Saturday August 13, 1960 at Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein. It was the third Test of a four-match series that the All Blacks had tied by taking the second at Cape Town.
It was notable for a number of reasons. It was the match where South African rugby took apartheid to its logical conclusion - not merely segregating non-white fans but banning them, apparent retribution for the enthusiasm with which they were wont to cheer for visiting teams. Yet there was still a crowd of 56,000, considerably more than the white population of Bloemfontein at the time.
It was also the first time Avril Malan, a powerful 23-year-old lock who had been seriously considered for the captaincy when he made his debut at the start of the series, captained South Africa. It looked likely to be a winning start. McLean recorded: "Eleven points to three, with South Africa playing with both the wind and the sun. It was the end. Nothing could save New Zealand."
With six minutes to go the All Blacks won a penalty. It was 60 yards out, at the far edge of even Clarke's prodigious range and "the breeze, if gentle, was still against the kick". Yet he landed the monster effort to cut the margin to 11-6 - a try and conversion's difference in 1960 values.
New Zealand wing Frank McMullen scored in the corner with two minutes left and was still down injured as Clarke took the kick. McLean reported: "The mark is 30 yards from the goal-line, six yards from the left-hand touchline. The wind is on the port beam. Every circumstance, not least the tension, must count against kick - and kicker…What thoughts are going through his mind. Who would be a goalkicker at such a moment?"
All Black skipper Wilson Whineray was unable to watch. Don's elder brother Ian had to - he was the All Black touch judge. And his flag was raised before the ball reached the posts, so unerring was the accuracy with which it had been struck.
McLean, not usually prone to exuberance, wrote of the denouement of the 11-11 draw: "There has never been anything like it, and there never will be again". My fellow ESPNscrum columnist John Taylor might reasonably differ from the second statement on the strength of his winning conversion of Gerald Davies's try at Murrayfield in 1971.
So might Jannie de Beer, citing the extraordinary penalty kick, wide angled in evilly swirling winds, that took the Boks-Wallabies World Cup semi-final at Twickenham in 1999 into extra time. Clarke, though, did it first, having already landed one shot that might by itself have been regarded as miraculous.
What followed was not necessarily what might have been expected. South Africa, written off by Board President Danie Craven who said, "we can never beat these people in a fourth Test at sea level", duly did to preserve an unbeaten record in home series against the All Blacks that would last until the 1990s. And by then Don Clarke was firmly rooted in South Africa, where he had moved in the 1970s and died in 2002.