Gary Clarke’s rugby league legacy extends far beyond his three Test appearances for the Kiwis during the 1960s. The Papanui half was a CRL premiership-winning player-coach, coached Canterbury to drought-breaking success, served as a New Zealand selector and extended his involvement in the game in his home province to well over half a century with roles as president and sponsor.
A Schoolboy Kiwi in 1956, Clarke played for Christchurch (later Eastern Suburbs) and Linwood, winning a premiership with the latter and playing the first of 30 matches for Canterbury in 1963. He transferred to Papanui in 1964 to play under the coaching of brother Ron.
Clarke turned out for Canterbury against Great Britain in 1966 and was a reserve for both Test matches, making his Kiwis debut off the bench against the Lions in the second Test. He replaced injured centre Roger Bailey after five minutes of the Carlaw Park clash and, according to John Coffey in The Kiwis: 100 Years of International Rugby League, ‘proved to be the best of the New Zealanders, injection some penetration into the backline and tackling hard and low’ in a 22-14 loss.
After missing the 1967 tour to Australia, Clarke was chosen in the Kiwis’ 1968 World Cup side and partnered captain and Papanui teammate Jim Bond in the halves as they went down to France and Australia. Injury ruled him out of the showdown with Great Britain.
Clarke skippered South Island against Australia in 1969. “I got flattened actually, by Graeme Langlands. I chased through and took the ball off him, and he went ‘bang, bang’, and I was down. I can remember asking Bobby Irvine, ‘who are we playing?’. You played on in those days, which was silly, but I came to and played the whole game,” he recalled in 2015.
The experienced playmaker was at the forefront as Papanui’s dominant 1970s era gathered steam. He led the club to consecutive Grand Final victories as player-coach in 1971-72 before hanging up the boots.
Clarke stepped up to the Canterbury coaching role for one season in 1975 – and steered the province to a drought-breaking victory over Auckland at Carlaw Park, the red-and-blacks’ first away victory over their heavyweight rivals in 50 years.
He then had a two-season stint in charge of Sydenham, including a narrow Grand Final loss to Papanui in 1978.
Clarke was later a selector for Graham Lowe-coached Kiwis of 1983-84, a period that including a watershed win over Australia at Lang Park and a 3-0 whitewash of the Lions.
A Life Member of Canterbury Rugby League, Clarke created an extraordinary rugby league museum at his business, Gary Clarke Plastics, which has been a generous benefactor of the local game for many years. He received the Queen’s Service Medal for services to sport and philanthropy in 2015, served as CRL President in 2018 and was awarded the NZRL Distinguished Service Medal in 2020.
NEW ZEALAND (1966, 1968)
3 Tests – 0 points
-1968 Kiwis World Cup squad