Former Warrington Wolves star Jon Clarke discusses possible Super League return, NRL role and Eddie Jones

Ross Heppenstall

Not many ex-rugby league players can say they have worked for England and the Wallabies at successive Rugby World Cups before landing themselves a top job in the NRL.

Jon Clarke rose through the ranks at Wigan Warriors before being sent to prison for assault for an incident following the 1998 Super League Grand Final. He rebuilt his life and spent 11 stellar years at Warrington Wolves before moving to rivals Widnes Vikings and then embarking on a highly successful career in strength and conditioning.

The former Great Britain hooker now serves as Head of Performance at Manly Sea Eagles, having spent five years in a similar role at the RFU under England boss Eddie Jones.

When Jones was axed in December 2022 and Steve Borthwick took over, Clarke was shown the door too. But after working with Jones again during the Wallabies’ ill-fated 2023 Rugby World Cup campaign in France, Clarke returned to rugby league with Manly ahead of the 2024 season.

He played with the NRL club’s chief executive Tony Mestrov at Wigan and London Broncos – where Manly head coach Anthony Seibold and assistant coach Jim Dymock were also team-mates.

It has been quite some reunion for Clarke and the 45-year-old, one of the world’s most respected coaches in his field, is loving life on Sydney’s northern beaches.

“I played with Tony, Seibs and Jimmy at London, so it’s amazing how, over 20 years on, the four of us are now working together at the same club in the NRL,” Clarke tells Love Rugby League“Tony’s my boss at Manly, Seibs is my head coach and Jimmy is our defensive coach. I’m absolutely loving it here.”

Clarke studied for a sports science degree when he was still playing and moved into strength and conditioning when he retired at Widnes in 2014.

“Denis Betts made me head of S & C at Widnes, but Warrington then offered me a three-year contract on a lot more money,” remembers Clarke, who hails from Lowton.

“Telling Denis, who had backed me, that I was leaving to go back to Warrington was really difficult because I loved Widnes and I loved Denis. I had a young family and couldn’t turn the opportunity down, so I returned to Warrington in 2016 under Tony Smith.

“I had a couple of good years with Tony and then Steve Price came in, so I wasn’t sure I was going to keep my job. Within two days, Steve said ‘I’m going to make you head of performance’.

“I’d sent him a few bits he’d asked for when he was still in Australia and I think that made him sit up and take notice. Pricey and I became close and still are today, but I took the England job.”

Being poached by firebrand Aussie Jones, a noted league advocate, was a surreal experience for Clarke.

“I got an email out of the blue from Eddie’s PA, saying ‘Eddie Jones would like to meet you at a hotel in Kensington… I thought it was a wind-up!” he admits.

“The following morning, my agent sent me a message that he’d thrown my name into the hat because Eddie Jones wanted a rugby league S & C coach.

“It was a bit cloak and dagger, but I was very open with Pricey at Warrington and told him I had this meeting with Eddie Jones but that I didn’t think anything was going to come of it. It was England rugby union and probably the biggest job in my line of work you can get.

“Steve said ‘go and speak to him’ so I went down to London to meet with some smart pants and a white shirt on but it was a red hot summer’s day. I got to Euston, my next train got cancelled, and I was absolutely dripping in sweat.

“I had to meet Eddie at this hotel at 7pm and at four minutes past seven he thanked me and said ‘right mate, I’ll be in touch’. It was four minutes and I rang my wife Cara in the hotel reception to tell her the interview was over.

“I came home, didn’t hear anything for a week and a half, but then got a phonecall from Eddie who offered me the job. We agreed figures on the phone and then I had the task of telling Pricey, at a time when Warrington had been trying to offer me a contract extension too.

“Anyway, I ended up taking the England job where I spent five years.”

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Highlights included making the 2019 World Cup final, losing narrowly to South Africa in Yokohama, winning a Six Nations, an autumn series and Test series against the Wallabies in Australia.

“It’s what I’d call a PhD in coaching,” says Clarke with a smile. “The level that Eddie and his team operated at just blew my mind.

“I didn’t want to move from the north-west to London and Eddie was fine with that. He said ‘as long as you’re prepared to be in London when you need to be, that’s fine’ so it worked well.

“Eddie’s intense and he knows he’s intense, but if you know your stuff and are doing all you can to help the team win then there’s never usually any issues.

“There’s only issues when you’ve not got your job nailed and are not showing the level of attention or motivation to help the team win as perhaps he wants.

“That’s when members of staff run into trouble. In five years, I think we had probably three or four huge rows. But it was only a difference of opinion and I knew how to get the best out of me.

“They were interesting times, but I have nothing but good things to say about Eddie and I mean nothing. He went out of his way to help me and, in his own way, show great care for me and my career going forward. He was absolutely unbelievable for me.”

By his own admission, Clarke knew precious little about the 15-a-side code before Jones tasked him with working with best players in the English game.

“I’d never played a game of rugby union in my life, so it was a very steep learning curve because the game was very different,” says Clarke. “But Eddie said ‘JC, I just want you to train the forwards and get them rugby league fit’.

“That made my job very easy and it was nice to go in there and add perhaps something they didn’t have in terms of their real level of fitness, strength and rugby league mentality.

“It was a case of ‘let’s just get it done’ because rugby league lads are amazing at that. Take players like Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley, who always got the job done.

“We really tried to drill that rugby league mentality into the 2019 World Cup squad with the way we trained and prepared – they always found that little bit extra. We probably got them as fit as an England team has ever been, alongside the 2003 team who of course won the World Cup.

“They were supremely fit going into the 2019 World Cup and I think the way they got to the final showed that, not just in terms of strength and conditioning but tactically and technically as well. The level of coaching going into that 2019 World Cup was phenomenal.

“We should have won it really, although as South Africa have shown, they are really difficult to beat in a final. But it was a great period in my coaching career.”

Clarke was also part of the strength and conditioning team on the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021, a series Warren Gatland’s men lost 2-1.

“Paul Stridgeon was the Lions’ head S & C coach and I’d had six months with him at Warrington when I was playing – I learnt a lot from him in terms of strength and conditioning,” says Clarke.

“The Lions role came on the back of my success with England and to watch Warren Gatland put all these players from different nations together was fascinating for a young coach like me.

“Unfortunately it was during Covid and we didn’t win the Test series, but the time we had and the friendships I made during those six weeks away was amazing.”

Jones, meanwhile, was sacked as England boss in December 2022 after a disappointing autumn series and it was not long before Clarke followed suit.

Borthwick, his former assistant with both Japan and England, replaced Jones at the helm and told Clarke he was not needed.

“Eddie got the flick at Christmas and then Borthwick came in,” says Clarke. “Martin Gleeson got sacked and I was still there but then I lost my job too – and it wasn’t great the way it happened.

“I was two hours into a journey to London for a meeting but then got a phonecall from Borthwick, who basically told me I wasn’t required to turn up. Unfortunately these things happen when a new coach comes in and they want their own regime.

“Personally, I wouldn’t have done it over the phone but that’s what you have to deal with sometimes in this career. And that was it – my job with England ended that day.”

Clarke, though, was quickly reunited with Jones when the former England boss took over as Australia coach leading into the 2023 World Cup.

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He adds: “Eddie offered me a role with the Wallabies for six months before I started at Manly. I did the World Cup last year with Eddie and got to have significant period of time with him influencing my career.

“Unfortunately it didn’t turn out the way we planned it to, but it was always going to be a big job. I’d had a successful 2019 World Cup and there was a good chance this wasn’t going to be as successful.

“But I was prepared to give it a good crack and see where we could the lads in a short space of time. Unfortunately we couldn’t get them to where we thought we could and it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.

“Again, though, I met some great lads in that some, and some good staff who I still speak to, and learnt a lot personally and professionally. I was just gutted we couldn’t get the boys to where we wanted to get them to.”

During this time, the family home in Warrington was sold and Clarke’s wife Cara and their children moved out to Australia in readiness for his move to Manly.

“My wife did it on her own and got the two kids in school, which was a massive move and I’ll be forever in her debt for that,” says Clarke. “It was incredible what she did and she got the family settled in Manly before I came back from the World Cup in France and went to join them down under. Here I am.”

Clarke worked with former London team-mate Seibold under Jones in the England rugby union set-up. “Seibs was England’s defence coach and we rekindled the friendship we had together at London Broncos,” explains Clarke.

“He then went back to Australia at the end of 2022 and offered me a job at Manly for the start of the 2024 campaign, so I had that in my back pocket.

“I didn’t actually sign it until I lost my job with England after that bad autumn series in 2022. The fact I knew Seibs, Tony and Jimmy from playing with them way back in the day has made the transition easier.

“Seibs’ wife has been amazing with my wife and kids, as has Mezzy’s partner Alex. Without those two, I know my wife wouldn’t have had such a nice introduction to Australia.

“I’m so grateful for that, but the club’s great and is surrounded by so many good people and players. It reminds of where Warrington were when Tony Smith was appointed in 2008. If you look at Manly’s history over however many years, they haven’t made the finals that many times.

“There’s a big job to do psychologically in terms of getting the lads to believe that they can do something special. Whether or not we can, we’ll see. But in the NRL there are no easy games in what is such a tough competition every single week.

“I watch a lot of different sports and I’m not sure I can think of a league this tough.

But the talent within Manly’s ranks is undeniable and in captain Daly Cherry-Evans they boast one of the greatest half-backs of the NRL era.

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“At 35, what Cherry-Evans does on a daily basis and in games is phenomenal,” says Clarke. “He deserves every accolade he gets and then obviously we’ve got Tommy Trbojevic who’s injured. We did a pretty good job of getting him right after years of turmoil but unfortunately he’s injured again – we’ll get him right, though.

“Haumole Olakau’atu is an absolute machine and I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t make the New South Wales squad for State of Origin. He’s an absolutely unbelievable player and would probably walk into any side.

“Then we have players like Luke Brooks and Jason Saab and a really strong pack of forwards. As the top English players have shown, they can come here and hold their own. I think the difference is that over here there is so much depth in quality.”

Manly finished a disappointing 12th last season in Seibold’s first year in charge and the onus is on them to make the finals this term.

“Finishing in the top four is always a bonus and, if you can’t do that, then make sure you’re in that top eight for the play-offs,” says Clarke.

“Like I said, you’ve got to be on it every week in this competition. It’s madness, but an amazing challenge.”

Looking ahead, Clarke is open-minded about the future, saying: “I’m definitely here for next season and, if things turn out right, I could stay for longer than that. As a family we want to stay here and I have no plans to come back to Super League just yet.

“I’ve got two daughters over here and my step-son, who is 21, is thinking about coming out now as well. In terms of my future ambitions, the mental side of the game is just getting bigger and bigger.

“Everyone has good training techniques now – all teams are fit and fast – but I feel the biggest differentiation between the teams is the psychological approach.

“I want to do something in that space and maybe a PhD in sports psychology in the next year or two. I’ve got some great contacts in England and over here, so that’s a road I could go down. But first and foremost I’m here to try and help Manly reach a level that we can be proud of.”

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