Leeds Rhinos forward and Rugby League World journalist Jamie Jones-Buchanan hears the remarkable life story of retiring Widnes Vikings captain Jon Clarke…
Having been a BMX junior champion, spent time in prison and being one of Super League’s top hookers for over a decade, Jon Clarke has quite a life story.
Now at 35, he is about to embark on the second retirement of his sporting career.
I have known Jon for many years now – my first encounter being in the 1998 Academy Grand Final between Leeds and Wigan. After an early carry, I got a few leg wobbling hooks to the head in the tackle before gingerly getting to my feet to find the curly-haired hooker stood at marker in front of me.
The same year Jon captained the Great Britain Academy tour to France on which I got to know the tough but friendly guy from Wigan. He was one of two hookers who, over the course of my career, I never dared strike for the ball in scrums for fear of what would happen to my knees and shins – the other being Terry Newton.
This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet
It’s no secret that Jon has decided to hang up his boots at the end of this year but before then he is focused on finishing on a major high with the Vikings. At the time of the interview their Challenge Cup semi-final with Castleford had yet to be played, and Denis Betts’ side were also sitting in eighth place in Super League.
The next few months will mark the last of a playing career unlike any other, which holds plenty of lessons for others, both on and off the field.
But before we talk about rugby I wanted to hear more about his other sporting exploits as a BMX champion.
“I had a really bad leg as a baby – I was born ‘nock kneed’ and I had it in plaster from hip to ankle for about eight months when I was a kid,” Clarke explained. “When they took it out the surgeon said to my parents, ‘Buy him a bike’, so my mum and dad bought me a BMX and that developed into me racing BMX bikes competitively.
“I was doing rehab at three years of age. I couldn’t even bend my leg but the surgeon told them to get me a bike to help.”
“I did a presentation for a school last night and they were asking my about my sporting career and I told them I was doing rehab at three years of age. I couldn’t even bend my leg but the surgeon told them to get me a bike to help with that so I have been recovering from injury from three really.
“At six, seven and eight years old I won three British titles back-to-back over the jumps, then I raced in a world championship down in London and got sixth in that. I retired at 10 because I started playing rugby.
“At the tracks we were at with the BMX bikes there was also scrambling going on next to it. We would race the BMX and someone you knew would be there on a scrambler and I would be off with them. Then that’s where the motorbikes came in – I love motorbikes my dad was into motorbikes too. I’ve not got one, but as soon as I finish playing I think I’m going to have one.
“There’s a couple of lads here who like bikes so we are trying to sort some tickets out for the GP. I’ve done a few track days and they excite me but I spend a lot of time with my kids. I do this as a player and have my own business so in my spare time I have to get that family time right so the hobbies have taken a back seat.
“I have a step son (11), a little girl (two) and we had another little girl at the start of July. I don’t know what spare time is at the minute!
“My stepson has a BMX in the garage now that is virtually identical to the BMX I used to race – they’re exactly the same as they were 20 years ago. I get on that and go to the shop some times, rolling back the years jumping up the curb in disguise.”
I get asked at times how the proverbial engine is and to be honest it’s never been better – my worry most weeks is not the state of the engine, its the fear of one of the wheels falling off, and the length of time it takes to put them back on these days.
In the last 12 months I have had five medium to long term injuries, all completely random and none related. It came to the point where I was content that one of my ears could just randomly fall of in the next game.
The truth is as Jon describes here – that thickened, battle-worn muscle just doesn’t stretch, bend or heal quite like it used to. Like anything entropic the body takes more time, energy and care to keep it in the same state as it gets older.
The thing I have realised this year whilst sat on the sidelines with injuries of my own is that one day, we will all just be photos in a match day program. It has made me appreciate how much we need to enjoy every minute of every game, especially those moments when the game is at its hardest because you just cant replicate that once it’s gone.
We all accept that we will one day need to finish, and God willing that will be on our own terms, as with Jon’s decision to retire at the end of the season. Still, the anxiety of what’s next and the fear of not having that weekly battle to sling shot you into the next week must always be in the back of your mind.
Certainly being able to stay in the game in some capacity helps to wean you off that addiction for conflict, as you can still be a part of the conquest every week.
Personally though I am an emotional man, and I just don’t know what it will “feel” like the day that I have to walk away from the game I have played every season for the last 23 years. I wanted to understand what it was that finally made up his mind to retire and how that looming horizon has made him feel.
“I decided pre-season this year that I would retire,” he explained. “I chatted with Denis (Betts) about it and I just decided that I didn’t want to go on too long.
“I got injured in pre-season and that’s what did me. I had trained up until Christmas without any injury, and after a few days back after Christmas I tore my hamstring, which kept me out for eight weeks. It floored me. I found it difficult to get going again – it’s probably taken me till now to get going again which seems like a ridiculous amount of time.
“But because of my age and because I had trained so hard it wiped me out. It rattled me and I lost some interest, that’s was when I started talking to Dennis and I told him that this was probably going to be my last year.
“It’s nothing physical, I can still beat most of the lads on here physically fitness wise. But when you get those bits of adversity they get harder to handle as you get older and that’s where I am at.
“Emotionally I feel mixed because I have done so much away from here to get myself qualified and get myself into a position to go into a job like strength and conditioning.
“Particularly with the younger lads I want to push the stuff away I did from the club (qualifications). Because if I had nothing to go into I would be worried about where I was going and what I was going to do.
“Even with a degree and masters degree to fall back on, I still get anxiety, thinking I’m not going to come training or get the gratification of winning and reaction from fans. But having somewhere to go helps me handle it.
“At this stage of my life I feel comfortable speaking about being sent to prison. I was probably a bit loose off the field.”
“I want to stay in that team environment – I don’t want the office job sitting behind the desk, I want to stay in Rugby League in strength and conditioning. That’s what I have studied to do and I got excited about training from being eight, nine, 10 years old, learning the underpinning theory of it to increase my knowledge of it. It has made me more determined to go down that road.
“I have my own business ‘Optimal Strength’ and I do 10-12 hours per week. I focus heavily on the young athletes, particularly young Rugby League players.
“I have been doing the personal training stuff for around 10 years now as I did my degree, then when I did my masters I moved it into more specialised conditioning. I have got that on the side but I do want to stay in Rugby League and be in that team environment.
“I have done some healthy eating things for schools too on the back of me running my own strength and conditioning business and having an interest in nutrition.
“When I finish, I won’t miss getting beat, that’s for sure! You can’t beat being on the field, in the zone; in that moment, knowing that you’re playing well. There’s no better feeling than having that confidence and that aura about you when you’re on top of your game – that’s what I will miss the most.
“I won’t miss those mornings three days after games though, they’re getting worse, but I will miss the satisfaction of playing well and knowing you have given everything for your teammates and coming in on the right side of a result.”
I have the pleasure of speaking to Rugby League legends and people who have watched the game much longer than I have and get a sense of how the game and the way it was played has changed so much over the years. The hooking role in particular was from what I perceive a fairly specialist role and there are still those players around, but as the game speeds up and the ruck becomes more important, we are seeing more and more of the James Roby style hookers who are blessed with pace and strength to burn markers almost at will.
“I got injured in pre-season and that’s what did me. I had trained up until Christmas without any injury, and after a few days back after Christmas I tore my hamstring, which kept me out for eight weeks. It floored me. I found it difficult to get going again – it’s probably taken me till now to get going again which seems like a ridiculous amount of time.”
With the emergence of Daryl Clark amongst others I wondered if Jon though thought that the role of a hooker had completely evolved and on his journey who were the top three hookers he rated as the best he played against.
“I think there’s a necessity for both,” he responded. “I think if you look at Warrington, they have Michael Monaghan who is a real hooker with guile, and then you get Micky Higham off the bench who’s ‘whoosh’ and just runs. I think that’s a nice blend if you can have them both.
“You mention Daryl Clarke, I watch him out of dummy half and he is unbelievable but he does have a lot of other stuff in his game. He is a crafty player and if he goes to Warrington where he is purported to be going his game will develop again under Tony Smith.”
Jon has had a long career in Rugby League spanning from his hometown in Wigan to a character building stint at London before moving onto Warrington where he won a Challenge Cup, had a testimonial and was voted the club’s best hooker of all time. Since then he has become the influential captain of the Vikings.
All the clubs he played at seem to have left a lasting influence on who he is today, and I am particularly impressed with the way the Wigan legends of the 90s left a lasting philosophical imprint on Jon’s career.
He carried that influence to the capital and grew as a player, like so many have at London over the years. Given his appreciation of his time there as well as the fact that the southern club has continually talented players that have kicked on elsewhere, I had to ask how he felt about their recent demise. We also talked about where he thought he played his best rugby and which coach he thought helped him to get there.
“The purpose that London serves for these fringe type players, is to go and come back better players. But on the other side of the coin, you can’t keep teams there for just that purpose.
“Whether that club getting just 1,000 fans a week in Super League is sustainable I don’t know, although I am disappointed because I had a fantastic time there and there are some fantastic people who work in that club. My personal opinion is that its not sustainable at Super League level but it’s a tough one really.
“I left Wigan as a consequence of what happened (off the field) because I still had a year left. I am gutted and disappointed that it finished in the way it did. They signed Terry Newton and I still had a year to go and I could have stayed but John Monie left Wigan and went to London as coach and asked if I wanted to go and get away from it.
“I went to let the dust settle really so it served a purpose. However I would not change a thing about going to Wigan and signing for Wigan at 14 because from 14-20 I was surrounded by Andy Farrell, Jason Robinson, Kris Radlinski, Henry Paul, Neil Cowie and Terry O’Connor, and their philosophy in the way they trained and conducted themselves every day is still with me today.
“You can rebuild yourself. It can take a bit of time but that’s where I get a lot of satisfaction about rebuilding myself after jail, and playing for Great Britain, in Challenge Cup finals, being captain of a Super League team and back into a position that I am proud of and can live with.”
“Watching Faz, Phil Clarke and Dennis Betts train when I was there at 14 had such an effect on me from a training point of view – how to train properly and be as physically fit as you can is still with me today. I wouldn’t change a thing.
“When you move clubs it is difficult to stay in touch with them all because you get a new group of mates, but I have a lot of time for Kris Radlinski and Andy Johnson who I lived with in London. Jason Robinson who did some stuff for me for my testimonial on the back of a phone call – absolutely good as gold.
“I saw Faz and Neil Cowie at a Christening recently, and it’s like it was all yesterday so there’s a nice bond and a good friendship there. It’s easy to fall back in a friendly way when you see them, but it’s tough to stay in touch all the time.
“I had a good few years at Warrington where I was up and down, up and down – average really. From 2005-2006 I started playing some good stuff then in 2007 I was with Great Britain and in 2008 I made the World Cup squad but broke my arm in the last game of the play-offs, so I missed out on going out there. So those four years were really my best rugby then ‘09 and ‘10 Tony Smith took over and really helped my game.
“When I am asked about coaches I think you hold a special place in your heart for the coach who gives you your debut and for me it was Eric Hughes in ’97 at Wigan, Sheffield away and we got beat so it wasn’t a good start. I wouldn’t say he was a great influence but he gave me an opportunity.
“At the time, Martin Hall was the Wigan hooker and was an international and he dropped Martin and put me in as an 18 year old kid so I was always grateful. In terms of influence on playing I would have to say Tony Smith. He just gave me little nuggets of gold, he would say try this or do that and just different was of playing.
“From a management view and leadership Dennis has been incredible. He has a completely different style to Tony in the way he manages players but has allowed myself, Kev Brown and other senior players to take on that leadership role, and for the transition into what I want to do next that’s been fantastic.”
The Great Britain Academy trip to France that I referred to earlier was just after a serious incident that resulted in Jon eventually spending a period in prison and ultimately leaving Wigan. He was jailed for assault following an incident outside a nightclub after the 1998 Grand Final, a game that he had been left out for.
It was an experience though which shaped Jon into the successful warrior he is today; one who will retire from Rugby League with a big list of honours at the side of his name.
Those with the ability and the emotional intelligence to turn adversity into something positive always have a great story to tell. Jon has been more than willing to share those stories and words of wisdom with the youngsters at the professional players induction day put on by the RFL at Huddersfield every year, where the 15 and 16 year old hopefuls embarking on their journey into the academy learn from professionals who have been there and done that.
“When you move clubs it is difficult to stay in touch with them all because you get a new group of mates, but I have a lot of time for Kris Radlinski and Andy Johnson who I lived with in London. Jason Robinson who did some stuff for me for my testimonial on the back of a phone call – absolutely good as gold.”
“At this stage of my life I feel comfortable speaking about being sent to prison and I feel comfortable being able to look back at my life and say I was probably – although I trained hard and played as hard as I could every week – I was probably a bit loose off the field.
“That’s the sort of message I give – that I didn’t have the right balance in my life. Although I was so dedicated to playing I was way off the mark off the field, so I try talk to the kids about getting the balance right.
“I never say, ‘Don’t go out and drink’ – it’s just about doing the right things at the right time.
“I also try to make them aware that if they do put themselves in those situations that they’re opening themselves up to all kinds of danger. The other message I try to get across without actually saying it is that, if something does go wrong it’s not the end of the world.
“You can rebuild yourself. It can take a bit of time but that’s where I get a lot of satisfaction about rebuilding myself after jail, and playing for Great Britain, in Challenge Cup finals, being captain of a Super League team and back into a position that I am proud of and can live with.
This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet
“If I could go back in time I would definitely change what happened because of the injuries to the bloke. But on the flip side of that, the incident and having it in the back of my mind has definitely made a better person and more thoughtful to people and more aware of my actions off the field. So in a way, whilst I’m not glad it happened to him, I’m glad it helped me to sort myself out.
“Going forward, it helped me deal with things. I was injured three days before the 2009 Challenge Cup – I was told that I had fractured my ankle and couldn’t play for six weeks. Warrington hadn’t been there for years, so Rugby League wise I was rock bottom.
“But having being through what I had before, I knew I could get myself back up. I had trouble with my ankle but I got myself back to a position where I played in 2010. There are definitely times in my career when I can call on those times of adversity and use them in a positive way.”