Tough front rower Paul Clarke played 187 top grade games at three different clubs after making his debut for Balmain in 1984.
It seems he was destined to be a first grade footballer based on family pedigree.
“My mother was part of a footballing family from North Sydney, the Blinkhorn family,” Clarke explained to Everything Rugby League.
“Her dad and uncles all played grade. My dad also played junior reps for Newtown.”
Starting in the under 8s as a five-year-old, Clarke says by the time he was seven he was ‘very familiar playing footy.’ “I just knew what to do before other kids and had confidence.”
Despite having two brothers (Peter 70 matches and Craig 25 matches) who played in the top grade there wasn’t a lot of backyard footy at the Clarke household.
“Mum was our greatest supporter. Drove us everywhere. She encouraged us like you wouldn’t believe. One of those fanatical footy mums but only supporting and encouraging with her kids, never to other kids.
“We were all three years apart, so each one was bigger than the other, not much footy in the backyard. More with friends. But all we did every weekend was go watch each other play at every footy oval in the Balmain area. That was our whole weekend. No phones and Playstations back then. Just a football on each kids hip.”
After playing in Balmain junior representative teams Clarke came to grade at the Tigers in what was a memorable era for the club.
“The big thing then in the ’80s at Balmain was the players were all local juniors or had started at the club when young. Balmain won a few SG Ball, and Jersey Flegg comps in the early 80’s so we were all mates anyway.
“They were a fantastic bunch of blokes and there was a strong bond with wives/girlfriends all getting on. Everyone who came to Balmain was made very welcome. It was a great time and era.”
One of those blokes was NSW and Australian forward Paul Sironen. Both players also attended Balmain junior nursery school Holy Cross Ryde.
“Great man Nobby. Very underrated front rower,” Sironen told Everything Rugby League.
“I played my junior Balmain reps with him and won an under 18s grand final vs the Sharks. He wasn’t the quickest around the field but boy his humour and wit were very quick!
“It was sad to see him leave Balmain but he reminds me of his premiership jacket with the Panthers when he feels it necessary. The ultimate club man and old school front rower.”
Before he moved to Penrith, Clarke sat on the bench for Balmain’s heartbreaking consecutive grand final losses in 1988 and 89
“Balmain always had strong forwards in the 80’s and other guys were playing better than me. 1988 was a bonus in that they came from a playoff for 5th to make the grand final. But in 89 they were better for the experience and just got pipped by the Raiders.
“It was shattering because the way I saw it even though I wasn’t playing and had signed to go to Penrith already, it was as if winning was the culmination of a decade of Balmain juniors bonding to win a grand final and justified all the hard work, Frank Stanton and Warren Ryan, officials, the players, even wives/partners had put together to make that era a total success by winning the comp. It still was a great era for the Tigers.”
The grand finals didn’t stop for Clarke after he moved on to the Penrith Panthers, finally securing a victory in 1991.
“1990 was similar to 1988 was for the Tigers and was a bit of a surprise for Penrith to get there. But 91 we were expected to win it after the experience of 90.
“At half time I thought to myself, I am a mock as It wasn’t looking good with the Raiders on top and I will be part of four squads who lost the grand final. In the end we came through and I’ve got to say it was a relief as much as excitement.
“Gus (Phil Gould) had put it on us after the ’90 loss that there were no second prizes. We had to win in ’91 or it would have been a failure of a year.
“I was as happy for my parents and brothers as much as for myself as we had always been a strong tight footy family. For all those years mum and dad drove me to junior reps and waited in the car till training was over. It rewarded them for all that hard work.“
After leaving the Panthers at the end of 1993 Clarke says his time at the Parramatta Eels was just as memorable for his off-field role as time on the field.
“I was at the end of my career and my time at Penrith was up. I had a few run-ins with Gus, which I was never going to win. Parra came along and Dunny (Paul Dunn) said it was a good club. It was a tough two years on the field but great two years off-field.
“I was working in the (Eels) marketing team and had to attend a lot of sponsor functions. Harbour cruises, lunches, golf days, etc. I became friends with a lot of sponsors and my footy suffered a bit. Actually a lot. I put a lot of hard work into looking after those sponsors because as the team was struggling I had to look after them and keep them happy, so they would keep putting dollars into the club. I Started 1995 in reserve grade and we came second last. I couldn’t wait for the season to finish.”
Despite missing out on the money that was thrown around like confetti during the Super League war, Clarke says he was happy with his career that included two appearances for NSW City in 1991-92.
“I announced in early April (1995) that this was to be my last year and a week later Super League came out. They were signing third graders to contracts. I tried to un-announce my retirement to get some loyalty dollars but even Super League wasn’t that desperate.
“I was lucky in that I retired on my terms, I was finished, had enough, not forced into retirement because no club wanted me. I had a great 13 years in grade and had great times, memories, friends to keep me going for life. I wouldn’t swap my time in rugby league for anything.”
“I played in an era when there were a lot of very good props. Blocker (Steve Roach), (Glenn) Lazarus, Les Davidson, Paul Harragon, Ian Roberts, (Martin) Bella, Salvo (Craig Salvatori), Cement (David Gillespie), Dunny (Paul Dunn), Kel (Peter Kelly), I could go on and on. But I never had a drama with any of those guys. They were all very hard men but played the game tough and fair. I think all of them played for Australia, so I’m happy to say I played against some of the best front rowers who ever played the game although they were a little bit better than me. Probably a lot.”
BEST OPPOSTITION PLAYER
“Allan Langer was the best I played against. I shit myself whenever he got the ball in our 25. He would sidestep, grubber, swerve and leave me on the ground cursing, with him laughing, having gone past me. Wally Lewis was the best I’ve seen in Origin, when there were all great players in 80’s Origin. Brad Clyde was not far behind the best I played against.”
“MG (Mark Geyer), only played 12/13 games but the effect in 91 that he had was unbelievable. He smashed and crashed the opposition in defence and his ability with the ball was underestimated. He should have won the Clive Churchill that year as he had a big hand in our three tries and knocked Steve Walters out of the game in the first set of six. Did a job on Brad Clyde as well. Brandy (Greg Alexander), Carty (John Cartwright), Ben Elias, Garry Jack, Blocker (Steve Roach) were all great players.”
“Barry Walker. The work he did in those 2 early years at Penrith, was enormous. Just think James Fischer-Harris.”
ADVICE TO ASPIRING PLAYERS
“Take the chance. Set up for life, mates for life & a sport of great character!”
“Part of the anatomy. Leave it at that!”
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