Exeter hooker Neil Clark upbeat about Heineken Cup qualification

neil clark
It’s been a mixed season for Exeter. Last year’s heady heights haven’t quite been reached, but that may well be because they have had to juggle the joint demands of a long domestic campaign and a grueling Heineken Cup schedule. This season, they are battling just to make the top six and qualify for next year’s competition.

Neil Clark, club stalwart and a loyal Exeter servant, nonetheless cites this as one of his favourite seasons yet at the club. “It’s been awesome. Having played for the Chiefs back in the old County Ground days, to finally play in the Heineken Cup is a box I’ve always wanted to tick. So to actually put in some good performances, and get a try against Leinster at Sandy Park was awesome.”

They didn’t make it out of the pool stages of the Heineken Cup (with Clermont and Leinster in their group that is hardly surprising), and since then their Premiership form has been a bit up and down. Before that astonishing win at Harlequins a few weeks ago, their last Premiership win had come on 1st December. Since then, though, they have put 48 points on London Welsh and secured a solid win away at Sixways against Worcester.

They sit in eighth, two points off sixth-placed Bath. Heineken Cup rugby next season is still firmly within their grasp. Clark believes it is down to the players to make it happen. “We’re at the business end of the season, and it’s all in our hands. It’s something that Rob (Baxter) talks about pretty consistently. We’ve come off the back of some really narrow losses – one bounce of the ball, one decision here or there and we could have won those games and then we’d be sitting in the top four. With a few games left, we’ll hopefully be sitting in the top part of that table and pushing for the Heineken Cup.”

So Clark remains positive. He owes a lot to Exeter, the club with whom he began his career before moving for an unsuccessful stint at Bristol. After a series of injuries, he was struck off their books, despite promises having been made that the club would look after him. “The biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome was when Bristol released me. After a couple of serious knee injuries they’d told me they were going to hold onto me, and they didn’t. That’s why I hold the Chiefs in such high regard; they gave me that opportunity to come back when most other clubs probably wouldn’t have touched me with a barge pole. I’m so grateful for that.”

Fittingly, Clark got his chance at revenge a couple of seasons ago when Exeter faced off against Bristol in the Championship promotion decider. Despite having played against European giants Clermont and Leinster, he still says that beating his old club to climb into the top league is his favourite rugby memory. “Personally, it’s always going to come back to that game. It was a double whammy – we got into the Premiership off the back of it, which was great, but to beat the team that had let me go, in their own back garden, was massive.”

clarkHuge kudos must go to Exeter and their coaching staff for looking after Clark, then. And he has repaid them with his loyalty. In an age of sky-rocketing salaries and players jetting off to all parts of the globe to ply their trade, the story of local boy Neil Clark’s commitment his hometown club is a commendable one.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Neil Clark’s autobiography, It Was Never My Ambition To Become A Hooker, is available online at www.chequeredflagpublishing.co.uk and at most other booksellers

3 thoughts on “Exeter hooker Neil Clark upbeat about Heineken Cup qualification

  1. Great article. Nice to hear from one of the less well known players in the Premiership. Think I might take a look at his book – has anybody else read it or can recommend it?

    1. I read it before writing this, and would definitely recommend it. Gives a good insight into what it is actually like to go through all the travails of being a professional rugby player – pre-season, injury, selection battles, etc. Hope you enjoy!

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