Culture was key for Clarke as Saints came so close

Jon Clarke loved his time at SaintsJon Clarke loved his time at Saints
Jon Clarke loved his time at Saints
Work hard, play hard. That was Saints’ mantra during Jon Clarke’s time at the club.

And it certainly paid off as big events off the field led to big events on them.

For Clarke and Co, the peak of the mountain was in Cardiff in May 2011.

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At half-time in the Heineken Cup final against Leinster, Jim Mallinder’s battered and bruised side seemed certain to hit the summit.

They had bludgeoned their way across Europe and Leinster looked set to be their last and most sizeable scalp.

But, as everyone knows, Saints couldn’t quite get over the line.

Their lack of squad depth eventually told as Leinster turned the screw during an eye-watering second-half showing.

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Jonny Sexton led the way superbly and Saints shipped 27 unanswered points on their way to a gut-wrenching 33-22 defeat.

But prior to that second 40 minutes, Saints had enjoyed a near perfect European campaign.

Win after win came as their tight-knit squad saw off clubs such as Castres, Ulster and Perpignan.

So just what made that side so special?

And what memories have stayed with influential centre Clarke, who left Saints during the summer of 2012?

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“It (Clarke’s nine years at Saints) is obviously right up there for me, in terms of winning finals and trophies and being able to play so much rugby,” he said. “I will always be grateful.

“I was also very lucky. I had lots of injuries and I didn’t just disappear, I was able to be part of a team that was doing well.

“What helped me was that as I went through injury, I could lean on other people and being part of a winning team gets you back to fitness.

“I was grateful for having so many good boys around me to keep my playing career going and keep me at the top level.

“Saints was brilliant.

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“The last season probably didn’t end as I wanted, but when people put things on social media there are lots of good memories around, certainly in the Heineken Cup final season.

“I had a lot of fun and we worked our socks off.”

And on that culture of fun and frolics, allied with ferocious pre-seasons, Clarke said: “I still always laugh about whenever Chris Ashton gave Nick Johnston loads of stick - that was always funny.

“You could never win against Chrissy, he could battle anyone, and Nick was always quite angry and when it came to Ashy he didn’t know what to do with him.

“There are loads of memories.

“Auntie Ruth’s (a nightclub in town) has gone but there were loads of memories there with the fellas and you don’t forget that.

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“In terms of the games, we went through a phase of winning a load in the last minute, matches against the likes of London Irish and Bath where we just pulled out wins.

“The setup at Northampton is one of the best and not many can match what Northampton has on site.

“Everyone enjoyed it and we worked hard.

“In terms of pre-seasons, other guys when I went to play for the Saxons asked me ‘are the rumours of the pre-seasons as bad as they say?’ and I would always say they are. They were brutal pre-seasons.

“But as a group we just got used to it.

“The banter was brutal but you realised that was how it was, it was never anything personal. It was just how it was and you could head out, enjoy yourself and give it your all. That’s what everyone did.

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“We were probably just gutted not to come away with more silverware because we kept getting so close and it would have been nice for that group to pull something off.”

“Everyone put everything in to make it happen.”

Clarke reached three figures in terms of Saints appearances, but he eventually departed for Worcester after the black, green and gold suffered Premiership semi-final heartbreak at Harlequins in 2012.

“I believe it was the right decision to leave at that time,” Clarke said.

“I was offered a good deal at Worcester and three years was perfect for me as I looked to move on.

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“Saints were going in a different direction and George Pisi was at the club.

“It wasn’t moving away because of competition, you just get to the point where you start for me to start going in a new direction.

“Looking at it now, obviously Worcester didn’t really work out. They went through coaches, Dean Ryan came in and we know how that season went.

“If you look back you could wish you stayed at Saints in a way, but at the time there’s no way you can guess the future.

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“I think it was the right time for me to move on and for the club to move on with different people.

“Saints made two finals the years after that.”

Sheffield-born Clarke, now 36, still holds Northampton close to his heart.

He still lives in the town and, prior to the Covid-19 situation, he happily met up with former team-mates such as Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha.

And he has plans to do so again when possible.

“After my time at Worcester I went to Leeds and then moved into coaching with the Rotherham Titans,” Clarke explained.

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“Last year I was doing Saints Academy stuff, just bits a pieces.

“This year, I’m not doing a whole lot and I’m just trying to figure out my own place in the world.

“I’m back in the lovely Northampton and when this virus stuff is over I’ll think of what I can do.

“I do try to catch up with some of the guys, we try to go for a breakfast and meet up and that’s nice.”

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