Clarke Brothers ~ Waikato Rugby
BY SOPHIE BOLADERAS AND JEANETTE CLARKE
Taranaki’s loss was Waikato rugby’s gain in 1946, when Alex and Ann Clarke arrived with their five sons to take up a share-milking job in Tatanui, near Morrinsville. The family soon became involved in rugby, Alex as a referee and the boys with the Kereone Rugby Club. Within a couple of years, they had moved to a bigger farm in the neighbouring district of Ngarua, where they share-milked for the next ten years. The boys spent much of their youth on the Ngarua farm playing rugby in the paddocks and helping with physical farming tasks which saw them grow into very strong and capable individuals.
Dad Alex was passionate about rugby and ensured that his sons learnt the games correct basic skills to go with their natural ability and enthusiasm. The physical farm work, combined with hours of training and Dad’s advice saw the boys’ progress from club rugby on to Waikato representative level. In 1958 the family went on to buy a rough block of land at Hoe-o-Tainui and decided on the fairly laborious challenge of converting it to a high producing dairy farm. Thankfully their five fit sons Douglas, Brian, Graeme, Ian and Don were there to help out.
The name Clarke has now been synonymous with local and international rugby for decades and the five talented brothers amassed a total of 409 matches for Waikato. Ian played 126 games, Doug 43, Don 98, Brian 70 and Graeme 72. All five brothers famously played together for Waikato against Thames Valley in 1961 and there were many other occasions when four Clarkes took the field together.
Ian was only 20 in 1951 when he began his career as a prop in Waikato’s original Ranfurly Shield winning team. He went on to establish himself as the cornerstone of the Waikato scrum throughout his 13-year career. Don, aged 17, was also selected for that shield challenge and kicked two penalties, which secured a Waikato win by six points to three. Don became renowned for his classical kicking style which saw him place the ball upright and kick it square-on with his traditional square-toed boot. Don’s skill and contribution to the Waikato side saw him selected to play in the third All Black test match of the Springbok tour. But older brother Ian was the first to earn All Black honours when he was selected for the 1953-54 tour of Britain. Ten years later, he was still there and his service to the game was recognised when the Barbarians invited him to play against his own touring side at Cardiff. He kicked the Barbarians’ only points, a 45-yard goal from a mark. Ian, playing at number eight, captained New Zealand in the 1955 series against Australia and in all he played 83 games for the All Blacks, including 24 tests, and 252 first class games.
Don’s inspiring rugby career was only hampered early on by a recurring knee injury that kept him off the field in 1952 and 1955. But back on the farm long training sessions following afternoon milking and support from Ian saw Don regain his confidence before the 1956 season. "We worked hard, all of us. The five boys had built rough weights - a bar of old piping with heavy chunks of wood at each end - to help us gain essential strength. Ian often packed down against rough fence posts to toughen his shoulders. Doug, a utility back, helped with the hours of handling and kicking practice, while Brian and Graeme were building towards their representative careers. It was the longest summer of my life." Don forced his way into the All Blacks for the final two tests against the 1956 Springboks and retained his fullback position until he retired prior to the 1965 season. He played his best rugby during the 1960 tour of South Africa, scoring 175 points in 20 matches. In his 89 All Black matches, Don scored 781 points, a record that stood for 24 years. He played 31 tests, scoring 207 points and was inducted into the New Zealand Rugby Hall of Fame in 2001 and later the same year into the International Rugby Hall of Fame. Don was also a man who replied personally to the dozens of letters he received from fans from all over the world, years after his successes for Waikato and the All Blacks. Donald Barry Clarke, All Black hero, was diagnosed with melanoma in March 2001, from which he died on December 29, 2002.
Ian retired as a rugby player after the 1963-64 tour of Britain, having played 252 first-class games. He continued to run his Morrinsville Dairy Farm and remained involved with local rugby. He refereed at a first-class level and served as junior and senior vice president of the New Zealand Rugby Union and was president in 1993. Ian supported as many provincial unions as possible, especially small, struggling unions in the third division. A life member of the Waikato Rugby Union, he advocated playing test matches in Hamilton, and was present in 1997 when the All Blacks won the first test match in Hamilton against Argentina. The following day he passed away at his farm. The numbers attending his funeral overflowed the St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Morrinsville.
All of the Clarke brothers contributed to rugby long after retiring from the game. Doug refereed to first class level and chaired the inaugural committee that investigated the feasibility of building a new Waikato Stadium. He also served as president of the Waikato Rugby Union from 1994-1995. Brian was the Waikato Rugby Union president from 2006-2010 and, as Ian before him, was elected a life member of the union and the Kereone club. Graeme inspired players and coached club and Morrinsville College rugby teams.
So from a typical Waikato farming background the Clarke brothers proved to be anything but typical when it came to rugby. The name Clarke has been synonymous with rugby for years and all of the brothers have made the Waikato region and its people proud.