All Blacks v South Africa: Emotional Caleb Clarke describes 'tough' road back to No.11 jersey

An emotional Caleb Clarke has described the 'tough' road back to the All Blacks, after being named in the No.11 jersey for their clash against the Springboks on Sunday.

Clarke is one of four changes by coach Ian Foster's starting lineup, replacing Sevu Reece, as the merry-go-round for the left wing spot continues.

The 23-year-old burst onto the scene in 2020, but missed 2021 after his bid for Olympic glory with New Zealand Sevens ruled him out of contention for the All Blacks.

Several quarantines and lockdowns later due of COVID-19, Clarke found himself on the outside looking in, and admits struggling with the ordeal.

"It was really tough. It wasn't tough because I wasn't playing rugby, it was tough because a lot of off-field things weren't going right," he said.

"Starting with the Olympics, I didn't make the squad and I think that's when I first got a taste of the media and people really thinking they had the right to say who I was as a person.

"I didn't mind if people talked about rugby or talked about me as a player, but when they started attacking me as a person, it started getting to me.

"It just felt like so many things were going wrong around that time, it was tough."

Caleb Clarke.
Caleb Clarke. Photo credit: Getty Images

Clarke missed the series against Ireland with a hamstring injury, but now lines up against a new foe in the form of the world champion Springboks.

He confesses he didn't think he would be named in the starting lineup to run onto Mbombela Stadium, but is looking forward to repaying the faith shown by his coach and teammates.

"It was pretty overwhelming seeing how much trust Fozzie [Foster] had in me and just getting to put that black jersey on again is going to be overwhelming," he said. 

"I remember being in Wellington and we were singing the national anthem on the field and I started crying on the sideline, and didn't even know why.

"I'm just really excited because it's been a big journey getting back into this black jersey.

"I can't wait to share this moment with the boys and this team, because some of them have helped me get here, the staff as well and family back home."

Clarke will bring much-needed energy to an All Blacks struggling to put consistent performances together, following their historic series defeat to the Irish.

He believes he will be at his best when he's allowed to be himself.

"I'm just waking up each day so happy and getting to be in a group who just accept me for who I am. I'm a bit of a joker, a bit of a high-energy person and all the boys accept that," he said.

"When I can be myself, that's when I can express myself."