AB hopes dashed, Clarke Ireland-bound
Chiefs co-captain Craig Clarke will join team-mate Richard Kahui in heading overseas at the end of this year's Super Rugby competition.
Clarke, who turns 30 in August, has signed with Irish club Connacht in Galway for three seasons and will not be available to play in this year's ITM Cup with his Taranaki team because he is expected in Ireland in mid-August.
Kahui announced last week that he was heading to Japan to play for the Toshiba club for two seasons after the 2013 Super Rugby season ends in early August.
Clarke, who has been at the heart of the Chiefs' successful engine room in 57 games, has followed hard on the heels of the All Blacks back and said he could have gone a year earlier if he had not enjoyed the franchise's winning Super Rugby run in 2012.
Married just three weeks ago, Clarke and new wife Veree decided it was time for a new "adventure", and with the big second-rower's impressive bid to win the attention of the All Blacks selectors unsuccessful, it was time to taste European professional rugby while he was still young enough.
"Me and my wife just feel it's the right time," Clarke said.
"We were thinking about doing it last year but during last year's campaign things were chugging along really well and I was enjoying it, so I thought I'll do this season as well."
Clarke admits it might have been different if he had been able to crack the All Blacks, but has no regrets, believing he gave it his best shot.
"It certainly would have made things different [if I had made the All Blacks] but I was really stoked with my form last season and I'm not sure if my knee injury towards the end of the campaign had any effect on my chances, but I was really chuffed with how it went and I want to replicate that this campaign."
It won't make any difference to his All Blacks hopes, which have now gone with this announcement, but Clarke said he would not be resting on his laurels.
"I gave it a real decent crack but I don't want to rest on last season's performance because otherwise I'll go backwards. I want to be a better player than I was last season.
"I'm a proud Chief and I want to do everything I can to get the success that we experienced last season."
Clarke said he had chosen Ireland because it was a case of being the best offer at the time.
"Then after the initial approaches it was a case of looking at Galway, the club, the people involved and all the different options."
Former Blues coach Pat Lam has taken over as head coach of a rebuilding Connacht club where former Waikato captain and Chiefs prop Nathan White plays.
Clarke said had spoken to Lam, an experienced northern hemisphere campaigner as both player and coach, and been given some useful advice on European rugby and life there in general.
Connacht - the fourth club in Ireland behind Leinster, Munster and Ulster - has ambitions of building into a more competitive force, using the likes of Clarke and White to blend experience with a strong depth of good young talent.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said Clarke's "impeccable standards on and off the field" had helped raise the bar in the team environment.
"He is a passionate Chiefs man and was a massive part of the success we had last season," said Rennie.
"His leadership, his work ethic and his attention to detail have continued to impress me.
"We'll miss him, but it's a great opportunity for Craig and Veree and we wish them all the best."