Connacht lose captain Clarke to enforced retirement

Standing tall: Craig Clarke, who has been forced to retire, proved a leading figure in  his short time with Connacht.

Standing tall: Craig Clarke, who has been forced to retire, proved a leading figure in his short time with Connacht.

One of Connacht's biggest signings, the double-winning Super 15 captain Craig Clarke, has been forced to quit the game.

His announcement was not unexpected, having been sidelined for the past five months as a result of repeated concussion.

Clarke 's decision comes following advice from medical specialists who have been monitoring his progress since he suffered his last head knock when playing against Saracens in the Heineken Cup in January. At the time Connacht coach Pat Lam said it was Clarke's 10th concussion in 22 months.

The New Zealand-born lock says the decision is "extremely disappointing".

"Of course I understand that health takes priority over sport every time, but I still can't escape the disappointment that I couldn't contribute to Connacht Rugby as I would have liked and envisaged before my arrival."

The 30-years-old surprised the rugby world by signing for Connacht on a three-year-deal last season, particularly having led the Chiefs to two successive Super 15 victories. Regarded as unlucky not to be selected for the All Blacks, Clarke instead opted to pursue his career with the Irish province where he was soon appointed captain and became an integral part of the playing and mentoring set-up, making 14 appearances, including five Heineken Cup games before his concussion.

Connacht team manager Tim Allnutt says Clarke, despite his short time in the province, brought an "abundance of knowledge and expertise with him".

"Craig was obviously one of the biggest signings we've ever had at Connacht and it was huge for us to get someone of his experience. He was an enthusiastic teacher who gave generously of his time to the younger forwards, and he had all the qualities of a Connacht team man.

"We are extremely disappointed for him that his time with the club has been cut short. As is the case with every player, the priority is his health and we're thankful that every precaution has been taken here."

Clarke, who will return to his New Zealand farm with wife Veree and Galway-born daughter Isabella, says he is proud of what he has achieved.

"I have experienced tough times with teams which has just made me appreciate the good times all the more. While I will always be disappointed not to have worn the black jersey of my country, I will sleep easy knowing that I gave it a real crack, particularly in my last three seasons playing in New Zealand.”

He also paid tribute to Connacht, saying: "The Connacht fans are like no other I've ever encountered.

"There will be a lot I'll remember from my time in Ireland. Naturally, our victory over Toulouse was a huge highlight, but there are other little things I'll never forget. The first time I ran out through the Clan Stand and on to the pitch, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I've never experienced such noise and atmosphere, and from within a relatively small stadium. They are an amazing bunch of supporters and I'd like to thank them for making me feel so welcome here."

New backs coach

Connacht Rugby has completed its backroom team with the appointment of Andre Bell as the new backs and kicking coach. The former Wellington Lions head coach, who led the side to the 2010 ITM Cup play-offs, has signed a two-year deal after a selection process that included Irish coach Joe Schmidt's input.

As a fullback Bell made 43 appearances for Otago before taking up a teaching post at Rotorua Boys’ High School where he influenced the early careers of players such as Liam Messam, Mike Delany and Stephen Setephano.

Bell is currently assisting the Fiji squad for their June internationals against Italy, Tonga and Samoa as well as the RWC qualifier against the Cook Islands before he flies into Ireland for the Connacht pre-season.

The new appointment brings Lam's coaching team to four.

Coach Pat Lam says Bell has proven himself as a quality and innovative technical coach.

“Our back line for next season is remarkably young with 12 of the 16 backs coming in under the age of 25. But the addition of Andre as well as Mils Muliaina as player-mentor will really drive the development of the young Irish qualified players.”

Gaffney at World Cup

Galwegians Ciaran Gaffney enjoyed a solid opening match in the Junior World Championship in NZ. Despite good possession and a number of chances, Ireland were unable to put points on the board at vital moments and went down 13-19 to France.

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