Former Warrington Wolves hooker, captain and head of performance Jon Clarke reflects on an incredible journey in his first year in the England RFU set-up

STOCKTON Heath-based Jon Clarke had never played a game of rugby union before accepting a role on Eddie Jones’ backroom team heading into a World Cup year.

He left a successful coaching stint with Warrington Wolves, for whom he had also played 263 games over 11 seasons, after the Grand Final loss to Wigan Warriors at Old Trafford in October, 2018, to tackle an opportunity he felt was too good to decline.

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And crossing codes led to the 40-year-old’s incredible experience in contributing to the preparation of England players who represented the nation in the World Cup Final against South Africa in Japan on November 2.

“Working with England in the World Cup surpassed my expectations,” said Clarke, the England senior team head of strength and conditioning.

“I knew international rugby union was big, but I didn’t realise how big it was. The World Cup blew my mind in terms of how big a stage it was.”

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Jon Clarke, with the man he describes as a mentor, former Wolves strength and conditioning chief Paul Stridgeon

But before kicking into World Cup mode, with its preparation camps followed by 10 weeks in Japan for the tournament, Clarke’s transition to the 15-man game came swiftly with the arrival of autumn internationals and the Guinness Six Nations just around the corner.

He needed to develop a relationship with his new boss, the rest of Jones’ coaches, the players and their clubs.

“Eddie’s nearly 60, but his work ethic is incredible. And his knowledge of rugby, of players, of teams, and the psychology of players and teams is unbelievable,” said Clarke, who also played for Great Britain, Wigan Warriors, London Broncos and Widnes Vikings during his decorated rugby league career.

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Eddie Jones coaching schoolchildren while in Japan

“He’s been incredible to work for and very supportive of what I’ve wanted to do with the lads. He can see the value in it, so I couldn’t speak highly enough of working with him.

“I’ve been very lucky.

“I had a phenomenal relationship with, and am still great mates with, Steve Price, who has turned Warrington around over the past couple of years from where they were.

“So I’ve been blessed in terms of leaders to work for over the past few years.”

He added: “The players are amazing. They’re well educated, they want to know why when asked to do things which is great and that keeps you on your toes at practice.

“The main challenge is around working with the clubs, which is something I wasn’t used to, and also learning the game inside out.

“Having played rugby league since the age of nine I sort of knew what most of that game was about. But I hadn’t had a game of rugby union or trained for a game of rugby union.

“There’s loads of similarities and that’s probably where I tried to bring in that rugby league experience, particularly defence wise.

“For anyone who has watched the games, they probably saw England rugby union players tackling like rugby league lads at times.

“We tried to drip that into them which I think we did a good job of.

“But trying to understand the nuances and subtleties around the game, of why you can’t do certain things at certain times has been hard.

“It’s all about possession. You’ve got to keep the ball, not get turned over but then sometimes it’s easier not to have the ball against certain opposition. That was the one thing I took a while to get my head around. I’m slowly but surely getting there.

“The challenge with the clubs is that English rugby union clubs are all privately owned, so the RU only has so much of a say in terms of what we can do with the players.

“That’s the constant challenge – how you can work with the clubs and create relationships with the clubs to allow the England elite performance squad boys to do a little bit more because the difference in international rugby union and club rugby is quite vast.”

Straightaway Clarke became the man Jones relied upon during matches to pass on key messages to players on the field.

“When I had agreed to go to England, Eddie came and watched the Super League Grand Final between us (Warrington) and Wigan,” said Clarke.

“He saw that I was on the field quite a lot with the boys trying to pass the messages on from Steve Price.

“So when I joined he said he wanted me to do that with England.”

Clarke recalled his first taste of Six Nations rugby last winter.

“The Six Nations was something I’ve never seen before in terms of the enormity of it all,” he said.

“The pressure was unbelievable. We had a big game down in Wales and I’ve never experienced volume like that.

“When I was on the pitch the lads couldn’t hear what I was saying to them. It was unbelievable.

“Even though we got beat, that game sticks in my mind a hell of a lot from my first year.

"And then there’s the World Cup."

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Jon Clarke with England Rugby Union colleagues leading up to and during the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Clockwise, from top, with Scott Wisemantel, attack coach; Neil Hatley, scrum coach; and Richard Smith, legal adviser; waiting for the players to board the bus ahead of the Tonga game; with Scott Wisemantel, attack coach; with John Mitchell, defence coach

While Clarke's matchday role in the World Cup had a familiar feel on the mic and headset to Jones, following an early morning tough training session with those players not selected to help with their fitness, preparations in advance of the tournament were at another level.

"There’s usually two or three campaigns a year with England, but because of the way the RFU and the clubs are set up we very rarely have the players for more than a week leading into those campaigns," said Clarke.

“Whereas with the World Cup, we had a proper 10-12 week pre-season leading into the World Cup.

"So my job was really exciting, it had loads of variation.

"Initially I was implementing programmes for the lads after they'd had three weeks off at the end of their club seasons.

"All the programmes were interactive with videos, such as providing diagrams to learn from so they had to take control themselves a little bit.

"And then we basically went into a 10-week pre-season, but we moved around the country to keep it interesting and to be stimulating for them."

A training camp took place in the Italian city of Treviso in July, where the heat and humidity could help prepare for what may have been in store in Japan.

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In Treviso on the World Cup camp with England's strength and conditioning team and nutritionist

"We went into August with four friendlies back-to-back," said Clarke as he continued to explain how his year panned out.

"That period was the big challenge for the national strength and conditioning coaches because we didn’t really want to back off the work with the players but they were Test matches as well as being warm-up games for the World Cup, and the lads wanted to play well.

"So it was about getting the balance between really hard training but also allowing the players to recover enough to play well and put their hand up for a position at the World Cup.

"I think we got that right. We had four really good games.

"And then we went to Japan and had another 10 days in the south where it was very hot.

"One of our main jobs was to get the lads acclimatised as much as we could to the humidity and the heat, and also to work out how to hydrate them properly.

"The job didn’t change too much for the World Cup, but everything went up 10 gears to what I’ve probably been used to and intensified.

"We were constantly monitoring and questioning and trying to tweak things to make things better in their preparation.

"And I think on reflection we did a pretty fair job to get through the group stages, and then beat Australia in the quarter-finals.

"We smashed New Zealand in the semi-finals.

"As we well know at Warrington, finals are usually about who gets it right on the day and unfortunately we probably didn’t get it quite right on the day with one or two things.

"But I think we gave a really good account of ourselves and I think most of the country was pretty proud of what we did.

"On the whole it surpassed all my expectations – just going to Japan as a country, Tokyo in particular was just an incredible place. The Japanese people couldn’t do enough for us.

"We were out there 10 weeks and although I really wanted to get home to my family and see the kids and the missus and the dog, I actually didn’t want it to end. I loved every minute of it."

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Meal out during a few rare days off with a mixed group of staff in Tokyo

There is irony in the role Clarke now has in that he is working with players whose fathers he lined up with or against as a rugby league player.

Owen Farrell's father Andy – a future Great Britain captain – was a rising superstar that Clarke looked up to at Wigan, while he went head-to-head with scrum-half Mike Ford, the father of George, and later became teammates with Gary Mercer, whose son Jack has been around the England set-up over the past year, too

"Owen reminds me of his dad so much, it’s incredible," said Clarke.

"The way he speaks, the way he shouts on the pitch and encourages the boys. He’s a winner, and his dad was exactly the same. It’s incredible at times when I hear Owen shout, it takes me back to being 18/19 when Faz was screaming at me at Wigan for doing something," said Clarke.

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Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell

“I always say that Andy Farrell, Denis Betts, Phil Clarke and Kris Radlinski had an influence on me.

"When I was coming through at Wigan from 14 and was watching these pros train, and what they stood for, and the values they held as people and players, but also knowing how to have a good time away from the place as well, they’re things I still hold today in my job.

"So that influence from Andy downwards to us young boys at Wigan, they’re the values that probably got me the job at Warrington – that work ethic, that detail, that over delivery. That’s what they were about, that’s what dripped down the ranks at Wigan, and hopefully now I am helping to have some influence over these young men in the England team."