AT only 21 and with just two Test caps to his name, Daryl Clark is already in a position familiar to many England players over the years: preparing for a must-win game with the odds stacked against them.
England could still qualify for the Four Nations final, a week tomorrow in Wellington, but evidence from the tournament so far points to yet another gallant failure.
Twelve months on from their last-gasp, two-point defeat to New Zealand in a thrilling World Cup semi-final at Wembley, England face the same opposition with a place in another showpiece at stake.
This time the challenge is even tougher for coach Steve McNamara’s team. Not only must they beat the Kiwis, they also need to do it by 10 points or more to remain in the competition and the tie is being staged on enemy turf, in Dunedin.
England have shown flashes of form during the Four Nations, but Clark – the Castleford Tigers hooker who was last month crowned Super League’s young player of the year and Man of Steel – admits it will take an 80-minute performance to get the job done tomorrow.
“We know what the situation is and what we need to win by if we want to be in the final,” said Clark, who set up a try with his first touch in international rugby during the win over Samoa and again looked England’s most potent attacking threat in the defeat by Australia five days ago.
“We are pretty confident. We fell short against the Aussies, but we felt we performed pretty well in that game.
“We have just got to tweak a few things from that and I’m sure we will be all right.”
McNamara has named an unchanged 17 from the loss in Melbourne, which will mean Clark – who is to join Warrington Wolves next season – starts on the bench with Hull KR’s Canberra Raiders-bound Josh Hodgson beginning the game at hooker. Calls for Leeds Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker and former Bradford Bulls second-row Elliott Whitehead, now with Catalans Dragons, to be given an opportunity have gone unheeded, but Clark feels a settled side gives England their best opportunity.
He stressed: “It will be our third game together and there was massive improvement from the Samoa game, so hopefully it will be another improvement on the Australia game.”
Whether England can rise enough to beat an impressive New Zealand outfit by the required margin is the key question.
The Kiwis were fortunate to scrape past Samoa last week, but showed against Australia in round one – when they won 30-12 after the game had been level 12-12 at the interval – what they are capable of.
“Obviously they were outstanding in the first game,” Clark reflected. “They got their second win against Samoa, but they weren’t as impressive. But we know it’s a great team and they are capable of winning games. If we want to win we will have to be on it.”