Don Clarke

by Bernard Frei on March 06, 2019

Donald Barry Clarke earned his nickname for one of the best reasons that international rugby union has ever known: Don ‘The Boot’ Clarke’s 781 points for the All-Blacks were scored in 89 matches between 1956 and 1964, a record that stood until 1988.

One of five brothers, all of whom played for Waikato, Clarke was born on November 10th 1933 in Pihama, near Opunake in the Taranaki Region. His older brother, Ian, played 24 Tests for the All Blacks.

When Clarke was ten, the family moved to Waikato, where he joined the local rugby club and made his senior debut aged 17, in 1951. In his first season his two penalties brought Waikato victory in the Ranfurly Shield against North Auckland.

His reward for five seasons of consistent quality at full-back for the club came when Waikato beat the touring Springboks in 1956 and Clarke was called up to play in the Third Test in Christchurch. Three minutes into his debut, he kicked a 41-metre penalty.

His kicking style is still discussed today: Clarke struck the ball square-on wearing boots that had square toes and followed through with his head down and his left arm raised.

At half time in rugby matches, he used to practise kicking goals from half-way in his bare feet.

At 6’3” and over seventeen stone, Clarke was the biggest man in most teams he played in, which contributed to his premature retirement from the game, aged thirty one, with knee problems.

Since the 1960s Clarke has regularly been mentioned in the same breath as Colin Meads, his ever-reassuring presence behind the All-Blacks pack often referred to by his ex-team mates, along with world-class kicking ability, which brought him 1851 points in first class rugby in 226 matches, 207 points in Tests, including eight tries.

Clarke scored 163 points on the All-Blacks’ 1957 tour of Australia, and his match-winning conversion against France at Athletic Park in 1961, kicked into a galeforce wind, which brought victory against the touring French side in Wellington, was described as ‘The most unbelievable kick I’ve ever seen.’

In the First Test of the 1959 Lions tour of New Zealand, the All-Blacks conceded four tries and scored none: the hosts won the game 18-17, with Clarke kicking six penalties. The press ran the headline, ‘Clarke 18, Lions 17’.

Against the 1959 Lions, in the All Blacks’ 98th Test, Clarke became the first All Black full-back to score a Test try.

The rugby union games of the nineteen sixties- and the now-professional twenty first century equivalent are quite different and this has been reflected in interviews with Clarke’s team mates since his death in 2002.

There were no kicking tees, the heavier leather balls would absorb water in wet conditions and the quality of pitches was incomparable. Most of the ‘sea of mud’ pitches on which Clarke and his contemporaries kicked would be considered unplayable today.

Colin Meads argued with anyone who saw Clarke ‘As merely a kicking machine’, pointing to his qualities as “A fine field player with good positional sense, unworldly hands and very difficult to beat.’

The psychological battle was half-won before the games started in which Clarke played: ‘He could kick them from his own 10-yard line, we'd find opposition hookers were afraid to move, and that loose forwards would stay attached to scrums. He inhibited the whole opposition.’

His deputy in the Test side for five seasons, Wellington's Mick Williment, was unusually-generous-spirited: ‘He was a fantastic player, he had so much confidence and inspired a team. I never for a moment felt anyone but Don Clarke should be the All Black fullback.’

Clarke’s contemporaries spoke frequently of how much he cared about the team, as well as his innate enthusiasm.

One indication of Clarke's kicking ability can be gauged by the frequent calls during his career for points for penalties to be reduced.

Clarke’s difficulty in sleeping was renowned and produced numerous anecdotes among his All-Black team mates, including John Graham, who shared with Clarke on occasion when on tour: ‘I roomed with him for the First Test in England and said to him: 'You can have the double bed, you can use the toilet and the shower first and I'll make you a cup of tea in the morning but I will decide when the bloody light goes out.’

Clarke had built a reputation in Test-playing countries beyond New Zealand, including England and France: ‘When we used to go to training and functions there would always be people waiting for autographs outside.’ We’d say to them, 'Don Clarke's coming,' we'd keep walking and not have to sign as many autographs.’

Clarke was also a talented cricketer, playing 27 first-class cricket matches as a right-arm opening bowler for Auckland and Northern Districts. He took five or more wickets in an innings four times.

The quality of the man is reflected in his own- and his team mate Kevin Skinner’s words after Clarke’s Test debut against South Africa:

‘I'll be a New Zealander as long as my backside points to the ground. When I talk of ‘We’ and ‘Us’, I'm only ever referring to the All Blacks.’

‘We knew straight away he was the bloke.’

Remember the history of the New Zealand All Blacks legend with this signed framed print of Don Clarke 

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