From prison to Super League star: Jon Clarke shares his remarkable story including Wigan Warriors, Warrington Wolves stints

Ross Heppenstall
Jon Clarke Warrington Wolves

Jon Clarke’s emergence at Wigan included a Premiership Trophy win over St Helens as an 18-year-old in 1997 and a stint in prison the following year.

It was a rollercoaster period in his embryonic rugby league journey but the former Great Britain hooker credits his time in Cherry and White with shaping his entire career.

Clarke has enough stories to fill a book from his time playing for Wigan, London Broncos, Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings. Having embarked on a successful career as a performance coach since retiring, the 45-year-old now serves as Head of Performance at Manly Sea Eagles.

But his rugby league journey began at the old Central Park where he encountered a squad overflowing with top players.

“I carry more from my time at Wigan in my job now than anywhere else I’ve been,” Clarke reveals in the second part of an exclusive interview with Love Rugby League“I watched how the likes of Andy Farrell, Phil Clarke, Denis Betts, Kris Radlinski, Terry O’Connor and Neil Cowie trained.

“Their motivation, dedication and desire just to be as good as they could be – even in training – stayed with me throughout my whole career and still does to this day.

“It’s why I’m here in this role at Manly. I can vividly recall walking into Central Park as a 14-year-old, having just signed for Wigan.

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“Denis, Phil Clarke and Faz were in the back gym at Central Park, which had just been knocked through, doing power cleans of 120kg. That was 1993 and I can just remember the way they went about things.

“Faz started doing stuff that was a bit edgy and against the run of play from a strength and conditioning perspective. Then all of a sudden, a couple more players started doing it, then three and four.

“Faz never said anything, it was just growing organically, and I still use those things to this day. His motivation to train hard was incredible and players followed him.”

Clarke’s star was on the rise at Wigan, where he debuted as an 18-year-old and helped them to that 1997 Premiership final win over St Helens at Old Trafford.

The following year, after Wigan won the inaugural Super League Grand Final against Leeds Rhinos, he got involved in a fight on a night out and was jailed for assault.

“I did a little stint inside, came back out but couldn’t really get going,” Clarke remembers with more than a tinge of regret. “My Wigan career petered out more quickly than I thought it would, but I learned plenty from the experience.

“They were fond times at Wigan, being developed by some unbelievable coaches. But if I had my time again then I’m sure I’d do things a bit differently – particularly off the field, so there’s a little bit of sadness there.

“I was surrounded by great friends and family, which helped me to move on when I left Wigan and joined London. That said, it probably took five or six years to really get over my time in prison.

“It was probably in 2004 or 2005 when I started playing good rugby again, culminating in playing for Great Britain in 2007. I’m not proud of it and what happened was unfortunate, particularly to the guy involved, but I learnt some huge lessons from it.

“It probably helped shape my life and where I am today.”

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Clarke joined London after being signed by his ex-Wigan coach John Monie in 2000. “I moved in with Andy Johnson, who I played with at Wigan, and Shaun Edwards, so we had a great time on and off the pitch,” adds Clarke.

“AJ and Shaun were great mentors to me and Tony Mestrov, who’s now my boss at Manly, was there along with Anthony Seibold, who’s now my head coach.

“In my second year at London came Jim Dymock, who’s now our defensive coach at Manly. I was pretty tight with Jimmy at London because he taught me more about playing hooker in 12 months than I learnt in my whole career.”

Clarke moved back north to Warrington in 2001, where he spent 11 years, the bulk of it spent playing under Paul Cullen and Tony Smith.

“Sometimes I think Cull doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he did at Warrington – he saved that club from getting relegated,” states Clarke. “He started, on his own, the rebuild of the club and as players, we loved Cull.

“He was phenomenal, a real players’ coach, and as a team we would have died for him. Tony came in and elevated the club to another level with his man-management style and experience his Leeds.

“We really respected Tony in terms of how he coached and what he did for the club, the town and the fans with the Challenge Cup successes. I’ve written down the way in which Tony got the best out of his players and I still speak to TS regularly now.

“I was very fortunate with all the coaches I played under.”

Jon Clarke Widnes Vikings
Clarke finished his career with Widnes Vikings.

Lee Briers was a mainstay of the Warrington team for many years and is now also working in the NRL as Brisbane Broncos assistant coach. “Lee won so many games for us on his own at Warrington,” says Clarke.

“I got stick for not running as much as a hooker but I had Lee Briers to my right and Martin Gleeson outside him, plus a really good back row. I would put the ball in Briersy’s hands and let him run the show.

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“Now I’m in the NRL, and how we play at Manly, our hookers are very similar and the half-backs when they need to. Briersy, on his day, was in a class of his own and is now thriving as a very good attack coach. I’m sure he’ll be a head coach at some point.

“You need the knowledge, of course, but I think the Aussies really respect the work ethic of British lads like ourselves.”

After leaving Warrington at the end of 2011, Clarke joined rivals Widnes Vikings after being reunited with Betts. “When Denis got the Widnes job, he rang me and said ‘I want you to become captain here’,” explains Clarke.

“He remembered the way I went about my business, my standards in training, and that’s what he wanted at Widnes Vikings.

“I absolutely loved my time at Widnes, although that first year was hard because my brother-in-law Paul Darbyshire, had died aged 41 from motor neurone disease.

“I got depressed after that and couldn’t stop feeling upset. I couldn’t get my head around how he had these beautiful kids with my sister but wasn’t going to get to see them grow up.

“But Denis was incredible and I gradually came to terms with it and came back strongly. Denis is a top fella and reminded me of Cull – a real players’ coach and a lovely man who has achieved so much in the game.

“I really enjoyed my three years at Widnes before retiring in 2014. Now I’m loving life at Manly.”

READ PART ONE: Former Warrington star Clarke discusses possible Super League return, NRL role and Eddie Jones