Youth in sport: Preston Grasshoppers and England star shares her inspiring journey
As part of our ongoing campaign on supporting youth in sport, we spoke with upcoming rugby star, Connie Clarke, on her journey from nearly quitting the sport to scoring two tries on her England Under-18s debut, as well as her hopes for the future.
Clarke, who has the potential to be a future rugby union star, first joined Preston Grasshoppers at the age of 7. The youngster discovered her passion for the game at a young age after being influenced by her family’s connection to the sport.
After learning about her Grandfather’s impressive career with England School Boys in the 1950’s, she and her brother embarked on a rugby journey that has led her onto some incredible achievements.
Reflecting on her early years, Clarke shared, “I first went down to a local rugby team aged 5. I went down with my older brother and sister at the time, and since then me and my brother kept playing all the way through.
“Me and my brother have got our Grandfather as an end point of what we want to achieve in our careers, we want to do it for him and build on his legacy. At the same time, we really enjoy playing and get such a buzz from it which ignited our drive to keep playing as we got older.”
Throughout her journey up to this point, Clarke has faced challenges as a female player in what was a historically male-dominated sport. However, the youngster admits she has witnessed a positive transformation in the acceptance and inclusivity of girls in rugby. “If you go to any rugby club in the country now, they accept girls and boys of all abilities, which is a big positive,” Clarke said.
“I was lucky to be part of a club who accepted me and allowed me to play, but when I played for other clubs they had never seen a girl play rugby. If a girl was to join a team it was quite difficult for them to fit in as they would feel too uncomfortable.”
One of the significant milestones in Clarke’s career up to this point was her England Under-18s debut, which came in their bicentennial anniversary game with Wales at Rugby School back in March. Overwhelmed with joy, she shared, “Once the email came through, I searched for my name, and once I found it, I was just over the moon.
“As it sunk in I told my family and then realised I would be playing in front of a bigger crowd than I was used to, which was initially daunting, but I managed to push that aside and just focused on the excitement of getting to play and represent my country.”
Clarke’s dedication and talent were evident as she scored two superb tries in a convincing 48-5 victory for England. Reflecting on the moment, she said, “At that point, it just felt like I was doing my job and scoring a try for the team I was playing for. But when I was running back to the halfway line, I heard the stadium announcer mention my name, ‘The scorer for England is Connie Clarke.’
“Then I heard all my family cheering from the distance, and that just boosted my energy even more – it was an amazing feeling.”
Balancing rugby with academic studies has been a priority for Clarke, who emphasizes the importance of maintaining an even playing field. “When I need to focus on my studies, that comes first,” she said.
“Sometimes, if I’ve been at an England training camp over the weekend, I’ll ask Preston Grasshoppers if I can miss a week’s training as I have to focus on work, and they are really understanding of that.”
Clarke’s journey has been marked by memorable experiences, particularly her involvement with Preston Grasshoppers. Recalling her early days with the girls’ team, she faced initial challenges due to the limited number of players.
“It was quite hard for me because I was used to turning up to training and doing something that was valuable, but there wasn’t much you could do with five girls.
“At that point, I had lost the motivation to keep playing. I was close to giving up and fell out of love with it because I wasn’t playing or developing, but my coach at Hoppers, Steve Tiernan, said it would only get better and I trusted him that it would.”
Clarke credits her coaches and mentors for her development as a player. Their belief in her abilities and constant guidance have propelled her to new heights. From her coach at Preston Grasshoppers to the trainers at Sale, they have played an instrumental role in shaping her skills and preparing her for higher levels of competition.
“I trained really hard and eventually got into the centre of excellence at Sale. All the coaches there then prepare all the girls for the next steps, and they focused not only my performance on the field, but also everything else off it that helps to shape you as a player.
“Eventually, I got picked up by England, which was an amazing feeling, and that wouldn’t have happened without the support of my coaches at ‘Hoppers’ and Sale.”
Looking ahead, Clarke’s ambitions include playing for the Senior Red Roses, the pinnacle of achievement in English women’s rugby.
“That’s always been the dream for me and I will do what it takes to make it happen. I’m moving down to Exeter next year, so hopefully if I keep training hard I can get into the Allianz Premier 15s and play for a team in that competition.”
Everyone at Kukri Sports wishes Connie success in her future career!
Kukri Sports are proud partners of Preston Grasshoppers – click here to find out more about the team.
Keep an eye out for more youth in sport content coming soon.