All Blacks coach Ian Foster warned fans and media not to get carried away with the Jonah Lomu-like performance of Caleb Clarke after the rookie winger bulldozed his team back into the Bledisloe Cup box seat.
Clarke, 21, burst into global rugby stardom as New Zealand beat Australia 27-7, keeping the Wallabies scoreless for the second half in Auckland.
After a pulsating 16-16 draw in the first Test last week, the talk this week was whether the Wallabies could end their 34-year losing streak at Eden Park.
They couldn’t – with a multitude of handling errors and a paper-thin defence consigning them to yet another loss at their least favourite ground.
The All Blacks, stung by the poor effort in game one, came with more venom. Veteran hooker Dane Coles bristled with energy and the return of Beauden Barrett from injury injected penetrative pace.
But the undoubted star was Clarke, who showed skills and a brute strength reminiscent of the great Lomu as he bludgeoned the Wallabies defence time and again, announcing himself as a future star in the making.
Clarke the son of former All Blacks centre Eroni Clarke, hasn’t even played a full 80 minutes of Test rugby yet – he had 11 minutes off the bench last week and 68 minutes today, coming in as a replacement for the injured George Bridge.
But he left the field to a standing ovation – a rare reward for a player so raw.
While the fans recognised they’d watched a special performance, Foster wanted to keep a lid on the young player’s profile.
“I’d rather you didn’t make him the headline tomorrow,” Foster told journalists.
He’s an uncomplicated individual – he’s got great self-awareness of who he is, he knows what he’s good at on the rugby park and he believes it – he just wants the ball and to run hard and it’s a good thing for us to be able to give him the ball and let him run hard.”
Clarke admitted to a broken sleep before the Test – “waking up with feelings of excitement and feelings of nervousness” – but said his team-mates kept his mind on the job.
“This morning the boys told me ‘just get the ball and run and don’t think about anything else’ and that’s pretty much all I had in mind today.”
That simple attitude was evident early on when Clarke sent Wallabies centre Hunter Paisami bouncing backwards out of a tackle – the first of many Wallabies players to feel his bullish power.
The game was effectively over and the future on show six minutes into the second half when Clarke, with a mix of brute strength and savvy footwork, smashed through five would-be tacklers to create the space for Ardie Savea to bust past the remnants of Australia’s defence.
The final two games of the series will be in Sydney on October 31 and in Brisbane on November 7.
The All Blacks only need to win one of those games to retain the Bledisloe Cup for a 17th straight year.