After being called up to play for Great Britain in 2007, Jon Clarke spoke to League Express about his career in the game. He is still a Warrington player.
You’ve played Super League since 1997. How much has the game changed since then?
It’s changed a lot. Each year the game evolves and improves as a spectacle. It’s a lot quicker than it was and fitness and strength levels keep going up and up. That can only make for a better product and defences have improved a lot too. A lot of emphasis is put on defence and technique along with the introduction of wrestling coaches and defences are a lot harder to break down as a result.
How much has the role of the hooker changed?
As I was coming into Super League, the role of the dummy-half was becoming much more important than it had been in previous years. Martin Dermott probably revolutionised the hooking role along with Steve Walters in Australia. Up until those two, the hooker was just an extra prop now it’s changed completely to the extent that someone like myself can even play a lot of games in the halfbacks. Hookers wouldn’t have done that pre-Super League because the body-shape of a hooker back then wouldn’t have allowed for it. The hooker is now potentially the most dangerous attacking player on the field.
You played for Great Britain Academy on a number of occasions.
Yes, that’s right. I even captained them at one point but the highlight was touring with them to New Zealand as a 16-year-old, going on to play in two of the Tests against a Junior Kiwi side that included Lesley Vainikolo, David Kidwell and Monty Betham. We lost the first game heavily and I came onto the bench for the second which we lost by three points and I started the third which we lost by just a point, and I managed to score a try. They’d beaten the Junior Kangaroos and were probably the best side in the world at that age level, so we did pretty well down there and we had quite a few Academy-eligible players playing for the full Great Britain team like Adrian Morley so we could have done even better with our full team. After that, Mike Gregory coached the GB Academy side and he made me captain, which I’ll always be grateful for. Mike was an excellent coach and a great fella.
Do you remember making the breakthrough into Super League?
In 1997, Martin Hall was the Wigan hooker with Eric Hughes the coach but they were having a bad year with the first two-thirds of the season really up and down. I made the bench for a game at Sheffield in August which we lost narrowly but the game I remember the most was at Bradford, late in the season. We were getting beaten but we turned it around and it was the first Super League game they lost all season. They’d wrapped up the league without losing a game before we beat them. I came off the bench that day and stayed in the side throughout the successful Premiership campaign which ended with us beating Saints at Old Trafford. I played all of that game which was a fantastic experience.
You also played in the World Club Challenge defeat to Hunter Mariners.
Yes, that was a really tough game which we only just lost. Their hooker was Robbie McCormack who ended up signing for Wigan for the 1998 season. I was still only 17 so I didn’t mind and I was happy to learn from him because he was such a good player and he had a great year for us in 1998. Playing for Wigan back then was great, getting the chance to play alongside guys like Jason Robinson and Andy Farrell. I played some more games in 1998 under John Monie but it was in 1999 that I realised that I was probably finished at Wigan. I struggled a bit that year and John ended up getting the London Broncos job and he took me with him.
How did you settle into life in London?
I loved it down there and it revitalised my career. I shared a house with Andy Johnson who also came down from Wigan and also, believe it or not, Shaun Edwards. Shaun was right at the end of his career and was a massive influence on me. I supported Wigan as a kid, with Shaun one of the best players then suddenly I was living with him! He used to give me tips and take me out for one-on-one sessions which was fantastic for me. you’d pay a lot of money for that sort of coaching from Giz now! I think he could see how hard I worked and how I studied the game and he could probably relate to that. He’s a big loss to the game at the moment and it would be great if he came back to Rugby League.
Why did you leave London in 2001?
Tony Rea came in and signed Jason Hetherington from Australia which I wasn’t best pleased with and I knew I was finished at the club in a game when we beat Wigan. I was a sub and came on for literally 20 seconds. As soon as I walked onto the field, the hooter went and I knew I was finished down there. Luckily for me, Warrington were looking for a hooker and I came back up north, initially on loan.
You went straight into a team alongside Allan Langer and Tawera Nikau, legends of the game.
That’s right. They were finishing their careers but they were still world stars and it was great to play with them. Andrew Gee was there too. It freshened me up after sitting on the London sidelines and did me the world of good. I remember a game at Wakefield when we were losing on the last play of the game. Alf was screaming for the ball but I dummied him and managed to score. Daryl van de Velde said he had his head in his hands watching me ignore Alfie but fortunately it paid off! Alf was great for the club, just one of the lads whether we won or lost and a great player too. He made the team tick and we were always in with a chance. There was a very noticeable difference when he didn’t play.
The last few years have seen a Warrington resurgence.
Yes, but we’ve not won anything! Although we have done everything else. The year when Steve Anderson coached us was a bit of a joke because what he was trying to do just didn’t work. David Plange took over then Cull came in and we’ve never looked back. Cull kept us in Super League and now our challenge is to get into a final, so that shows how far we’ve come on and off the field. We’ve put together a great squad now, which will stay together for a few years and hopefully we can achieve what we want to.
Were you surprised to get a Great Britain call-up this year?
Yes, definitely. I kept saying to Cull and Jimmy Lowes that playing in the halves wasn’t helping my international aspirations because I knew that I wouldn’t be picked in the halves for Great Britain. But, to be honest, I think it might have helped me because it introduced new things into my game and when I went back to hooker it seemed easier! I can read the game better now and I think I’m now a better hooker as a result. Jimmy coming to the club has been a big help to me as well. He was a great player and having him helping me out is a huge bonus. What more could a player want than Jimmy Lowes giving him tips? It’s now up to me to keep hold of that spot and get a place in the World Cup squad.