Special for Caleb Clarke to tuck in Jonah Lomu’s No 11 jersey
WELLINGTON - Caleb Clarke made a big impression on his first Test start for the All Blacks on Sunday but if his season had gone to plan the left winger would not have rolled off New Zealand's production line of backline talent at all this year.
Instead of busting through Wallabies tacklers in Bledisloe Cup tests, the 21-year-old was supposed to have spent 2020 on the international rugby sevens circuit preparing for a shot at gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, forced the cancellation of the circuit and then the postponement of the Tokyo Games.
Back with the Auckland Blues full-time, Clarke was one of the standout performers in the domestic Super Rugby competition and it was little surprise that he followed his father Eroni into the All Blacks.
They became the 20th father-and-son All Blacks pairing when he came off the bench for an impressive 11-minute cameo in the first Bledisloe Cup match last week in Wellington.
A less-than-convincing outing by Ian Foster's team in that game, coupled with an injury to George Bridge, propelled Clarke into the starting lineup for the second test on Sunday.
And Clarke was seen as the catalyst of an improved All Blacks' attack, his powerful running setting up two second-half tries in a 27-7 win and earning comparisons with the late Jonah Lomu.
"I grew up watching that jersey all my life," Clarke said of Lomu's No. 11. "It was really special to chuck it on for the first time and let it sink in.
"I did my pre-game a bit faster because I just wanted to sit and have a moment in the jersey for a little bit."
Clarke is just the latest All Blacks power winger to terrorise defences with power and speed -- Joe Rokocoko, Julian Savea and Rieko Ioane have all sparkled in the jersey over the last 20 years.
He was just as punishing as his predecessors on Sunday, powering through would-be tacklers and using the speed that saw him run the 100m in 10.72 seconds at secondary school to leave others grasping at thin air.
New Zealand coach Ian Foster called for calm over Clarke's performance but was happy with how the level-headed youngster, shown on social media to be a handy pianist, was tracking.
"What the world wants to say, that's their business," Foster said on Monday. "I'm really confident that he's grounded.
"He's got a lot of self-belief and self-awareness in himself.
"You've just got to enjoy what you do and keep growing."