England’s training camp in Leeds has proved to be an enjoyable home-coming for flanker Calum Clark. Nick Westby reports.
It is a testament to Calum Clark’s confidence and development that a first week in the company of his new England team-mates has not intimidated him.
What may have helped him settle down so quickly was that his first training camp with the big boys was held in West Yorkshire and took in some of the venues he grew familiar with during his seven years with Leeds Carnegie.
Hearing from his old colleague across the corridor at the Leeds Rugby Academy – Kevin Sinfield – earlier this week will have also put his mind at ease.
Having established himself in the Northampton Saints side that reached last season’s Heineken Cup final, the 22-year-old is perhaps justified in having the utmost faith in his ability.
“I expected to be a bit more in awe of it all but I think the way we’ve come together, everyone is really down to earth, everyone is here to work hard,” says Clark, who represented England at junior level.
“That’s what we do every day at our clubs and most of the players that are here I’ve played against numerous times in the Premiership. There’s a number I play with at club level so it’s probably less daunting than what I thought it would be.
“Playing alongside international quality players each week at club level and being involved in that environment has really helped me improve. It has helped me push forward and justified the decision I made to leave Leeds.
“While this is new to me, it’s been really refreshing, and it’s been good to change environments, to be around such good players in such a constructive management team and I’m really excited about the way things are going.”
His relationship with interim coach Stuart Lancaster has also eased his transition into the senior ranks.
Should Clark get the nod to start in the back row at Murrayfield on Saturday week, or even come off the bench, it would provide perfect symmetry to his career.
For it was Lancaster who gave Clark his debut for Leeds Carnegie in 2007, making him the youngest player to appear in the Guinness Premiership at the time.
“A few injuries happened early on in the season and three games in I was thrown in at the deep end at 18,” says Clark of his debut against Saracens on September 30, 2007. “There was a lot of trust put in me by Stuart at that age and it has served me well.
“Stuart was my port of call in the academy. Then as I left school, the team were promoted into the Premiership and he was head coach.
“I know Stuart really well, know what he’s about, and coming into the camp a lot of the players maybe hadn’t worked with him before, but all I have received is good, positive feedback from the players.
“One of the things Stuart is best at is building a culture, getting people to behave in the right manner, working hard for each other. He’s brought that in in spades this week and the players have responded to that. They feel really positive about the whole thing and that is going to be important as the team develops.
“The first day we spent in Leeds was heavily based on culture.
“We’re happy with where we’re at now with regards to the culture, we’re now moving onto the game, tactics, structure etcetera. The culture is a lot down to the players. Everyone’s really positive and turns up to work hard, and that’s probably one of the main battles, getting that right.
“I feel we’ve set our foundations to where we want to be. It’s just a matter of putting the other pieces in place.”
Part of Lancaster’s culture building incorporated talks by some of the leading figures from other sports.
England rugby league captain Jamie Peacock and former football international Gary Neville were scheduled to address the team last night on what it means to represent your country.
But for Clark, the guest speaker who really struck a chord with not only himself but the whole squad, was Leeds Rhinos captain Sinfield on Wednesday night.
Clark says: “One of the main things Kevin spoke about was self-discipline. He’s not someone who is ever in the papers for the wrong reasons, he’s straight down the line ,and I think that’s a credit to him.
“He came across as really grounded, someone you look to as being really inspirational and someone you would want to emulate.
“I’m a huge fan of his, having been involved at Leeds Carnegie, working side-by-side with the Rhinos.
“A huge thing with the Rhinos is that they’ve got such a strong culture, and that’s the word that keeps cropping up for us.
“Having been around the Leeds set-up, you notice that that’s why they’ve been so successful.
“And that was capped off by what the Rhinos did last season when they were written off, doubted, told they weren’t good enough and too old.
“But knowing what they’re about, that tightness they have, to be able to turn it around last season was such a success story.
“You can look at that and think that you want to have that, you want to be able to pull together when the chips are down, move on and still be successful in the end.”
Clark has occupied all three positions across the back row during England’s training camp in Leeds.
Lancaster and his coaches are trying out a number of combinations, with Clark an outside bet to fill the No 7 shirt at openside.
“I’ve been all over, playing both sides of the scrum,” says Clark.
“We’ve got a lot of similar players with a lot of versatility – Chris Robshaw, Phil Dowson – who I know well.
“Over the weekend they’ll have a team in mind and I’ll just have to hope I have done enough.”
What they made of the Leeds experience
Calum Clark, 22, (Northampton) flanker
“It’s strange to be back. I’ve sweated a few times in that gym down at Kirkstall, seen some pain.
“It’s humbling though, really, because you don’t want to forget where you first learned everything.
“My parents used to drive me to that gym on a Monday night after school. It makes you realise what you do it for, and to not get carried away and to keep your feet on the ground.”
Tom Palmer, 32, (Stade Francais) lock
“It’s certainly been a good week’s training, all the players have really enjoyed it.
“In terms of being in Leeds it’s a nice change for me personally. It’s good to be back where I spent so much time.
“It’s even been nice being able to take care of a few jobs at my house.
“Being somewhere new, somewhere different has helped us and (today’s) open session in front of the school kids (at Weetwood Hall) should be good fun.”
Charlie Hodgson, 31, (Saracens) fly-half
“It’s been great. For me, going back to West Park especially. It’s a long time since I was playing their for the minis for Old Brodleians back in my days in Halifax.
“It’s good to be here and, as Stuart Lancaster says, it’s about reconnecting with the grass roots and the fact that we can do it here is fantastic.”
Ben Foden, 26, (Northampton) full-back
“It’s been quite refreshing, really, a new group of players, a new management and a new set of surroundings in Leeds that we are not used to.
“And you can’t fault anything the new management has done – it’s all been really positive.
“It’s a new time, new changes and a clean slate and now it’s time for us to take the bull by the horns and show the world what we can do.”
Ben Morgan, 22, (Scarlets) No 8
“It’s been absolutely brilliant here in Leeds; the guys have made it really easy for me getting to know people and have spent time to get know me as well.
“This is an elite level now so things have got to be that much above what I have done before. A lot of things are new to me, and I am really enjoying it.”