When seven-year-old Eroni Clarke sat with his father watching All Blacks winger Bryan Williams dart across the try line, he was captivated by the game. The sodden rugby field, the giant players, the distinctive black jersey – all marked the beginning of a dream that would span this young boy’s life.
Ask anyone and you’ll know that Eroni is a self-proclaimed Westie. He grew up in Henderson with his Samoan-born family and played First XV for Henderson High School alongside another Auckland and Blues rugby great – Michael Jones.
“Playing with Michael was one of the greatest privileges that I had,” Eroni said. “What he brought to the game was amazing. Certain players, when they were on the field, you felt safe.”
Eroni tracked Michael from Henderson High to Auckland representative teams and then on to the Auckland Rugby team in 1991.
It was here that Eroni began rubbing shoulders with some of the best rugby players in the country: Sean Fitzpatrick, Craig Dowd, the Brooke brothers, Michael Jones, John Kirwan.
“I was just a kid walking around feeling like I was in rugby heaven,” he said.
Within his first year with Auckland, Eroni started getting noticed by All Blacks selectors – especially when he took on Wallaby winger Ian Williams during an Auckland vs. Queensland match at Eden Park.
Eroni was invited to a week of All Blacks trials at the beginning of 1992 and by the April of that year, a lifelong dream came to reality. Eroni made the All Blacks squad to play the World XV in Wellington. Over the next six years, he would make a total 24 appearances in the black jersey.
During this time Eroni’s rugby at a local level began accelerating. He became a mainstay for the Auckland side, earning 154 caps for the team between 1991 and 2002. Then in 1996, rugby in New Zealand made the giant step into professionalism.
“It was quite surreal, no one knew what to expect,” he said.
The Blues would go on to win that first Super Rugby competition, as well as the year after – Eroni playing a crucial part in both victories.
One of Eroni’s most memorable rugby moments was during that first year when the Blues beat the Natal Sharks during the round robin competition, thanks to Eroni’s key backup of Lee Stensness. Check out the video here.
In 2002, after 11 years of playing first-class rugby in New Zealand, Eroni and his wife Siala moved their three children to Japan for two seasons with Ricoh Rugby. At the end of the two years, the family returned to Henderson and welcomed another two children to the family.
For Eroni, the focus post-rugby has been on continuing his passion for people.
“Coming out of sport, one of the greatest opportunities I’ve had is using that sport and continuing to be an influence. Not just to New Zealand but to a lot of aspiring Pacific Islanders coming through,” said Eroni.
This strong Christian man describes himself as pastoral with a strong caring nature. He’s completed counselling training with his church and the DHB and initially worked for Quantum Sport, focusing on developing character through sport.
He then felt drawn to working directly with the Pasifika community, which has led to a role in workforce development with LeVa. It’s a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps educate the Pasifika community in suicide prevention, addictions, alcohol and drug abuse, gambling and mental health.
“The transition from sport to what I do today was really positive because it was so aligned with my values and my DNA,” said Eroni. “I’m passionate about people and I’m passionate about Pasifika.”
Now, Eroni’s involvement in rugby is from the sidelines watching his second son Caleb follow in his father’s footsteps on the field and play for the 2015 Blues’ U17 and U18 teams. His father’s dream has been passed on.