When Erin Clark’s once promising rugby league career stalled in the months following his 20th birthday, he knew something drastic would need to happen for him to ever want, or have the chance, to return to the NRL arena.
His rise to first-grade as a teenager with the Warriors in 2017 was quick, but so too was the subsequent fall, and months later Clark made a mid-season switch to the Raiders.
That too was ill-fated and lasted just months before he was released without playing a single NRL game for the Green Machine.
His return to Auckland appeared to signal the end of any professional rugby league prospects, but instead over the next two years Clark slowly discovered a new level of self-awareness and purpose back at his junior club the Manurewa Marlins.
Now set to play his 50th Telstra Premiership on Friday night against the Storm, the 24-year-old Titan credits the two-year stint back home in Auckland for getting his life and career back on track.
“I’m glad I had those two years off because they kinda molded me into who I am today, the father I am, the person I am,” Clark told NRL.com.
“Just making me appreciate what I have. If you do this from so young it feels like more of a job than something you love, which was the point it got to.
“We all have our journey and I’m happy those two years came, because I needed it to refresh and reflect.”
Clark can’t be stopped
“Young, arrogant, thought you had it all.”
A flashy halfback growing up, Clark was better than most he came up against in Auckland and he knew it.
Named by the Warriors as the Player of the Tournament at the New Zealand secondary schools nationals in 2014, he was a hot property well before making his National Youth Competition debut with the club as a 17-year-old the following year.
But with a mouth to match his fast feet, Clark had a habit of rubbing people up the wrong way at times, according to former Manurewa coach Ben Phillips.
“I used to go down and watch his high school games and think ‘look at this cocky little prick’, that’s how I used to see him,” Phillips told NRL.com
“I quickly found he was actually a nice fella, you just had to get past that arrogance.
“Don’t get me wrong, even when he came back [to Manurewa in 2018] he had a bit of a big head.
“I think a few of the boys sort of pinned him down a bit and that’s when the real Erin turned up and started contributing.”
When he looks back now, Clark said his mindset at the time was never going to cut it in the NRL.
“I was just young, arrogant, thought you had it all. But looking back I had nothing,” Clark said.
“I had good backing, good parents, so it wasn’t that. They always kept me grounded.
I just think those two years back home built me to who I am today, so I don’t think [I’d be here now] otherwise.
A change in outlook
After experiencing life at both the Warriors and Raiders, and playing on the international stage with Samoa, it was back in the Auckland club environment, where most play for the love of it and maybe an occasional fuel voucher, that Clark rediscovered his passion for the game.
Surrounded by his childhood friends, the desire to give it another crack at the highest level started to return.
Clark pounces on the loose ball
“That was one of the reasons I went back there, just to have that social side of footy, play with my mates, like we all do when we are younger,” Clark said.
“Even just to have a beer after the game with a few of your friends, that was something I enjoyed.
“I had good people around me and they always kept whispering in my ear ‘bro, you shouldn’t be here, you know where you should be’, so that kept me striving to get back to the NRL.”
Phillips said during that time Clark also benefitted from the presence of Manurewa’s head coach at the time, Neccrom Areaiiti, who played a lone NRL match for South Sydney back in 2012 and could relate to the situation better than most.
“When [Erin] came back his head wasn’t in a good place,” Phillips said.
“He just wanted to play with his mates and be with all his boys again. He found the love again for the game because he was playing with all his mates again.
“Neccrom had been in that environment the same as Erin, and Neccrom was always on him, not pressuring him, but guiding him and encouraging him.
Once he had his first game with us he went to another level. All of us, from the players to the coaching staff, we said ‘he’s not going to be here long’.
Former Manurewa Marlins coach
“We are just so stoked for the guy now; we are so proud.”
Making the most of a second chance
As he approaches game 50 at NRL level, Clark also finds himself firmly in the frame for New Zealand selection at this year’s World Cup.
His Kiwis prospects will have only improved in recent weeks too, with Clark showing an ability to play as a middle forward as well as a hooker for the Gold Coast.
Kiwis coach Michael Maguire said Clark had been on his radar for some time before he picked him up in the wider squad for the mid-year Test against Tonga.
“To have Erin come in and have a look at what is required at this level, it’s up to him now to step it up and take it forward,” Maguire told NRL.com.
“He wants to grow his game, that’s what I have always got from Erin.
“He’s talking to Issac Luke, he looks at other players to grow his game. It takes time to understand how to play that role at the highest level.”
Clark now has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his mum Temepara – who played for New Zealand in netball – in representing his country of birth, having already had the chance to play for Samoa.