Blues wing Caleb Clarke still driven to go for Olympic gold

Blockbuster Blues wing Caleb Clarke has not given up on his Olympic dream and may yet make a return to the sevens scene in time for the postponed Tokyo Games.

Clarke, it is fair to say, is a man in demand after making his All Blacks breakthrough in stunning fashion through the abbreviated 2020 campaign, on the back of an outstanding season with the Blues in the inaugural edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The 21-year-old has in short time become a mainstay of Leon MacDonald’s Blues side, who entertain the Crusaders on Sunday in a top-of-the-table Super Rugby Aotearoa clash that will have the national stadium bulging at its seams. With his withering mix of power and pace, he has become an automatic selection on the left wing, and also a fan favourite with a joyous personality that shines like a beacon.

But he’s also a heck of a sevens player, with a clear appreciation for the game, both in the part it has played in his development, and the opportunities that still exist within its framework. Right at the top of that are the Tokyo Olympics which continue to tempt Clarke like a siren’s song luring a nearby sailor.

Clarke says he has not made a decision yet on his availability or otherwise for Tokyo and whatever buildup programme is required, but admits he has not cast aside his Olympic ambitions just because of his success in the XVs game.

“I’m just taking one step at a time,” Clarke told Stuff. “For now it’s with the Blues, and whenever a sevens callup happens, that’s when I’ll make that decision again.

“But the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a lot of athletes, and it definitely still appeals, if I can fit it in.”

Of course, in this Covid world nothing is black and white. In sport grey areas abound. There are no international men’s sevens tournaments scheduled before the Olympic Games which run from July 26-31 in Tokyo.

So quite what the buildup is going to look like has yet to be officially determined.

In terms of the XVs game, Super Rugby Aotearoa is scheduled to run until the final on May 8, leading into a trans-Tasman competition between May 14 and June 19 that is looking increasingly unlikely.

The likelihood is that the Aotearoa competition will flip to a third round if trans-Tasman is grounded before takeoff.

The All Blacks have three low-key tests scheduled for July, two against Italy and one against Fiji, and after that what the Rugby Championships looks like remains anyone’s guess.

For now Clarke’s full focus is on the Blues, for whom he has made a typically industrious start in 2021. He ran for 73 metres on 8 carries with 2 clean breaks, 5 defenders beaten and a try in the season-opening 31-16 victory over the Canes. Then he toted up 45m on 5 runs with 2 clean breaks and a try last Sunday as the Highlanders were dispatched 39-17.

He likes what the team is building, says consistency of performance is their next big step and feels like the shared mentality of delivering a style of game the whole region can be proud of is the right approach.

Given that 2020 had represented his first campaign as a regular Blues starter, after which he appeared in five of the All Blacks’ six tests, starting the last four, it’s interesting to get his take on the so-called second-year syndrome.

“I’ve heard that a lot,” he says with his trademark beaming smile. “I don’t think it affects me as much mentally. I try to keep the same attitude towards the game. I still just want to compete and have fun. That’s how I see it. I’ve parked 2020 and I’m looking to playing some good rugby with my mates in 2021.”