Jon Clarke is set to make his 350th career appearance this weekend, but he stills remembers his debut for Wigan back in 1997 like it was yesterday.
The Widnes hooker burst on to the scene as an 18-year-old, playing in a Warriors side featuring the likes of Andrew Farrell, Jason Robinson and Gary Connolly which won the last ever Premiership title in 1997.
Now 33, Clarke can look back at a career where he has featured in all but the first year of Super League, including a spell at London Broncos, and 10 successful years at Warrington, where he earned a testimonial for his service to the club.
He said: “When you reach a figure like 350 games, you think back to that very first game. For me it was Sheffield v Wigan.
“I remember it vividly, like it was yesterday. If you ask any player, they’ll remember their debut. We got beat, but it was a real turning point, as we went on to win the Premiership final. I played 11 or 12 games that year, and took over as starting hooker.
“It was a great experience, and playing at Old Trafford marked a great first year for me.
“For me and Paul Johnson (who also broke through in to the same Wigan side in 1998), it was very nerve-wracking, Wigan had an unbelievable team. A few years ago, me and Lee Briers were laughing about how things had changed.
“Back then, we used to get changed in the away changing rooms, we wouldn’t go near the first team dressing room. You didn’t want to put your bag down where it shouldn’t be, and get in the way of a Neil Cowie or a Terry O’Connor, and find it scattered across the changing room! It’s interesting how it’s changed.”
One thing that has changed, is the structure of the game below first team level. When Clarke was coming through the ranks, he progressed from playing in the Wigan academy to playing in the old alliance set-up; a far cry from today’s set-up of dual-registration.
He said: “The dual-reg is a bit hit and miss. We were quite lucky as youngsters, because we’d play for the academy and then if we were good enough, play for the alliance team, which was effectively a second team.
“It worked. There was a natural progression, and you were playing against seasoned professionals who couldn’t get in the first team for whatever reason. I loved it, it was a nice stepping stone.
“The jury is still out on the new system for me. I know there are Super League sides, like us at Widnes, who have players to offer, but the partner clubs are choosing not to take them.
“So the agreement is not panning out, and you’ve got players too old for the academy not playing rugby. How can that be healthy for their development?”
After four years at Wigan, Clarke moved south to London Broncos to “let the dust settle” following an off-field misdemeanour, before joining Warrington, initially on loan, in 2001.
During his time at the Wolves, Clarke clocked up 263 games, more than 400 points and a Challenge Cup winners medal, as well as being awarded a testimonial year.
Warrington went from narrowly avoiding relegation to becoming one of the sport’s top clubs in Clarke’s 10 years.
He said: “We struggled in the first few years, a lot of coaches like Daryl van der Velde, Steve Anderson and David Plange came and went, and then Paul Cullen came in.
“A game that stands out is Castleford at Wilderspool in 2002, which was one of the games that helped us avoid relegation. Playing in the last game at Wilderspool was special, as was the first ever game at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
It was while at Warrington that Clarke got his chance at international level, playing twice for Great Britain in their last ever test series against New Zealand in 2007.
At the end of 2011, Clarke was offered the chance to stay at Warrington, in a coaching role, but wanted to continue his career, and that took him to Widnes, who he captained in their first season back in the top flight in 2012.
“You can’t underestimate how difficult the first year back in Super League was for Widnes. We had a squad that was cobbled together in a few months, with players with different backgrounds. It’s difficult to perform every week against some top quality opposition.
“Coming back for pre-season with the same group of players, not being strangers and being mates, helped, and all our hard work is starting to pay dividends.”
This season, Clarke has been utilised as starting hooker by Denis Betts, but has also played in the halves and at loose forward during his career.
Having recently studied for a masters degree in Strength and Conditioning, Clarke has looked after himself throughout his career.
“I was always encouraged to play more positions, I think you’ve got to be able to play more than one in the modern game if you want a longer career. It helps from the team point of view if you’ve got lads that can fit in when there’s injuries.
“You have to keep yourself fit, and it’s something I pride myself on. Denis has said he wants me on the pitch as long as possible to help guide the team around.
“I don’t know about next season, we’ve not discussed it properly, but I’m sure we’ll sit down in the next few weeks. I’ve not ruled out playing for another season.”
Clarke’s 350th game will be in Vikings colours this weekend, when they make the trip to Catalan.