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Clark has left nothing on pitch in reaching top with his beloved Chiefs

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 12, 2012

  • Exeter Chiefs hooker Neil Clark signs copies of his book at his testimonial launch picture: DAN MULLAN/Pinnacle

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It may be his testimonial year but Exeter Chiefs hooker Neil Clark is showing no signs of letting up soon.

Indeed, the 31-year-old has just completed an arduous return to fitness from a shoulder injury, just in time for perhaps the most exciting spell in the club's history.

Clark made his Aviva Premiership comeback in last weekend's victory over champions Harlequins at Sandy Park. He played the last 18 minutes as a replacement for Simon Alcott.

"If anyone finds a lung on the pitch, it probably belongs to me," said Clark. "It doesn't matter how much fitness you do or exercise, there is no substitute for running around a pitch.

"The last 20 minutes of a Premiership match is tough but it is great to be back on the pitch with the boys again. That is what you train for and I'm really pleased to be back."

And having dismantled the champions of England in a thrilling 42-18 display at Sandy Park, they take on the champions of Europe, Leinster, at the RDS Arena this weekend in the Heineken Cup.

"It doesn't get much better," said Clark. "I think we can be very satisfied with what we have achieved over the last six games. Leading in to our first Heineken Cup now, such a great result against the champions – it doesn't get much better than this."

It is easy to forgive Clark for a slight feeling of disbelief. His career, that started with an Exeter debut against Orrell as an 18-year-old in October 1999, has been a far from straightforward journey to success.

He moved to Bristol in 2003 and helped them win promotion to the Premiership but a anterior cruciate ligament injury saw his time at Memorial Stadium come to an abrupt end.

After being released, he played for the Cornish All Blacks in 2006-07 before returning to the Launceston club the following season after a spell at Bath covering for their 2007 World Cup stars.

Clark was a Chief again for the start of the 2008-09 campaign but broke his ankle before the end. He came back strong again to help the club win promotion in 2010.

It is a story so good, they made a book out it. Clark and Stephen Manning released it this month, called It Was Never My Ambition To Be A Hooker.

Clark, who also has a degree in sport and exercise science from the University of Exeter, admits there were plenty of times when he had doubts about his rugby career.

"I certainly did think twice about everything," he said. "When my wife fell pregnant with the little one, she was flying for Virgin Atlantic at the time. She gave up her job and then Bristol released me and I was very close to throwing it in because I didn't have a club and was three or four months away from being able to play again.

"There were some really big decisions but fortunately I was given an opportunity at Launceston and Bath, and I always stayed in contact with Rob Baxter. Things worked out.

"Getting the opportunity to come back here and have another five or six years, it has been a bit of a roller coaster but it has been fantastic."

It is a story that began in Cornwall. Clark grew up in Porthleven and was spotted playing rugby for Helston school by current Chiefs team manager Robin Cowling.

"I owe Cornwall everything really. Robin picked me up back in Cornwall and then we've come up here. If it wasn't for Cornwall, I probably wouldn't be here now.

"I happened to play for the school at Helston. Me with my long, blond hair in the back row and the next thing we knew Robin was banging on the front door of the house and said, 'if you do this and do that, you could be a good rugby player'.

"Fortunately enough, he managed to put up with me over the years and brought me up and down the A30."

Clark has represented England Under-19s and Under-21s but he is just as proud to have represented his beloved Cornwall at youth and senior level. His testimonial match will see his select XV take on the Cornwall county side on May 13.

"I'm very passionate about Cornwall. It was always a big thing, when I was asked to play for Devon years ago, I turned it down flat. I'm Cornish and all my family are there and I love it," he said.

"I played for Cornwall back when I was 18 or 19. I was on the bench here and I was allowed to go for a bit of game time. Me and Jason Hobson played and were fortunate enough to play in the Twickenham final.

"I didn't get too many games for them but it was nice. I played all age group levels for Cornwall up to the Under-20s and I'm very passionate about it. I've even got a tattoo."

There are still a few chapters yet to be written, however. The exceptional work carried out by the Chiefs' backroom staff and sports scientists ensures Clark can stay young for at least a few more years. His mischievous side is certainly evident when he is around his Chiefs team-mates. When veteran back-row Rich Baxter walks past, he found it impossible not to engage.

"When you see old boys like him over there [Rich Baxter] it gives you hope. I do massively still feel like a kid, especially hanging around this lot.

"You never know what is around the corner or what opportunities come. That's going to be the next chapter of my life. I'm not ready to retire from rugby yet. Hopefully, I've got a little bit left in the old legs."

As Chiefs' finest hour approaches, it is only fitting it should reward one of its best servants with a testimonial. Clark's story is certainly one worth celebrating.

www.clarkystestimonial.co.uk/

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