by Alec McQuarrie
April 15, 2022 10:06
Reading time: 3 minutes
Ben Clarke was a literal and figurative giant of the sport, straddling the amateur and professional eras from 1992 to 2002.
The back rower was unlucky enough to be selected for just one Lions tour – the last amateur tour in 1993 to New Zealand – but made such an impression that when a New Zealander was asked what he was thinking of the Lions, he replied “You can keep the rest, but we’ll take this Clarke anytime.
Unsurprisingly, he was voted Player of the Tour, having featured in all three Test matches against the All Blacks.
Only one Lions team has ever secured a Test series victory against New Zealand, and in the early 90s memories of Carwyn James’ triumphant 1971 tour were hazy at best.
But Sir Ian McGeechan’s side couldn’t have come much closer, giving up a one-point lead at the last minute of the first Test in Christchurch thanks to a controversial Grant Fox penalty.
The second test was a completely different story.
England hooker Brian Moore described the 7-20 win in Wellington as “one of the best single performances in Lions history”.
“We shut them out of the lineup… we chased them, we tackled superbly. It was also a huge psychological boost for us that we mixed well.
And one man unquestionably stood out in the Lions’ highest ever score against New Zealand.
As inside center Jeremy Guscott recalls, “Ben Clarke was amazing. He said ‘I’ve got them’ and when he had the bit between his teeth against the All Blacks he was unstoppable.
“All he had to do on the blind side was grab the ball, ram into people and not worry about his hands.
“He was huge on this Tour, almost head and shoulders above everyone else, which is quite difficult to do. He was on a different plane than the rest of us.
The Lions would lose the third Test decider to Auckland, but Clarke’s international reputation was already assured, playing in five of the tourists’ seven wins that summer.
Big Ben’s seven-year career for England yielded 40 caps with a special highlight coming in 1995 when England won their first Five Nations title and a Grand Slam for three years.
And in their first round game against Ireland in Dublin, the Bath striker would go down in history for two very different incidents.
He scored his first and only try in the Five Nations following a close-range maul and, more importantly, became the first international to receive a yellow card – despite not being convicted, simply ‘warned’ – for an awkward stamp on Bath team-mate Simon Geoghegan.
Just a year later, he hit the headlines after a big money move that saw him leave Bath to captain Richmond FC Second Division.
Much had changed for the former agriculture student who was forced into a second job on a dairy farm when he joined Bath in 1992.
“I had to get up at 5 a.m. every morning, feed and milk the cows. It was hands-on work,” Clarke recalls.
The lucrative move to Richmond raised eyebrows and hurt Clarke’s international prospects as his career wound down, contributing to him being overlooked – perhaps unfairly – for the Lions’ Tour in 1997.
After Richmond entered administration in 1999, Clarke returned for a second spell at Bath.
Since retiring in 2002, he has worked as a money broker for BGC Partners, for a time working alongside his 1993 touring mate Peter Winterbottom.
But for many, Clarke will forever be remembered for how he single-handedly rode through the All Blacks all those years ago in the famous red shirt, sealing his place in Lions folklore.