All Blacks' rookie Caleb Clarke staying grounded to avoid second-year syndrome

Caleb Clarke of the Blues runs the ball against the Highlanders Greg Bowker/Getty Images

Life changed rapidly for Caleb Clarke in 2020.

He started the year in relative obscurity, finished the season as one of rugby's breakout stars after running amok against the Wallabies at Eden Park, and absorbed plenty of lessons along the way that should help him avoid second year syndrome those with similar rapid elevations tend to encounter.

"Last year was a real roller-coaster for me," Clarke says. "The highs were really high and the lows really low. I took a lot out of 2020 and I learnt a lot about myself and how I deal with different issues."

Clarke started the year with visions of representing the New Zealand sevens team at the Tokyo Olympics - a dream he may yet fulfil later this year after the Games were postponed.

At that point the Blues, let alone the All Blacks, weren't on his radar.

"If we think back to this time last year I was just coming home from Vancouver - we would have been in self isolation. Never would I have thought I would be in the Blues. It's pretty crazy going into 2020 wanting to be an Olympian and coming out as an All Black. You never know how things work - I'm not complaining. I'm really grateful for all the lessons last year both on and off the field.

"For now I'm focused on the Blues and whenever the Olympic situation arises, I'll face it when it comes."

One major adjustment Clarke had to get his head around was the added scrutiny attached to being an All Black. While the 21-year-old is grounded thanks to positive role models such as his father, former Blues and All Blacks midfielder Eroni, the added attention took some getting used to.

Grieving his grandfather's death - Clarke scored the opening Super Rugby Aotearoa try hours after finding out the devastating news - was particularly difficult.

"It was a bit strange coming into the public eye a lot more and at the same time trying to deal with family members passing away.

"I've never minded having conversations with people or taking photos. My dad used to always tell me if you're nice to people on your way up they'll be nice to you on your way down. I brought that mentality into a lot of different things, but sometimes when I did want to enjoy chilling out or going to the night market it was hard to do stuff like that.

"Family members that I might not have seen in years trying to take a piece of me or trying to take a photo when I didn't want to... it's little things like that where I wanted it to be normal but it comes with rugby and this job. As much as I enjoyed it, there were times I just wanted to chill out.

"My parents and the boys, Rieko and Akira, keep me grounded - if I ever get cheeky to Akira he'll slap me over the head."

Of all the lessons Clarke took away from last year, one of the most important is to keep expressing his natural character in all situations. Footage of Clarke playing the piano whilst in the All Blacks last year is case in point.

"I learnt a lot about self-identity. When you come into the All Blacks, or any high-profile team like that, I've heard people tend to go into their shells and want to do the right things. I just want to keep being me. Ardie [Savea] was encouraging me to keep dancing, keep joking around.

"I learnt a lot about rugby, too. Rubbing shoulders with TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, he was my first roomie so he taught me a lot. I'm keen to bring all those things into 2021."

Clarke's devastating performance in his first start for the All Blacks on the left wing against the Wallabies put him firmly on the global radar - his power and pace drawing instant comparisons to the late, great Jonah Lomu.

In the following Test in Sydney, Clarke was a marked man in the All Blacks' 43-5 demolition job. With analysis of the game constant Clarke is well aware every opposition is now trying cut down his time and space on the ball.

"I learnt in the second Australian Test - the one over there - that if people are worrying about me they forget about everyone else. I don't mind having to be that decoy if I have to be. Countering that, I have to get off the wing and go looking for work."

All Blacks assistant coach Brad Mooar implored Clarke to roam, to be involved as much as possible. Along with showcasing his breadth of skills Clarke is attempting to carry Mooar's advice into this season too.

"That's a good way to switch up the game because everyone thinks I'm one-dimensional with running and tackling hard but I can kick, run, pass so working alongside Rieks [Rieko Ioane] has been really helpful. On Sunday I kicked the ball for the first time in a game and it was actually good."

This Sunday's top-of-the-table showdown between the Blues and Crusaders at Eden Park is the next chance for Clarke to debunk second year syndrome suggestions - and you would be right in assuming the locals have been waiting some time for this match.

"After two cancelled games we can finally play them in-front of our home crowd."