Ian James Clarke was born at Kaponga, Taranaki, on 5 March 1931, the eldest of five sons of Alexander James Clarke, a blacksmith, and his wife, Annie Marie Taylor. He attended Pīhama and Ōtākeho primary schools and Hāwera Technical High School before the family moved to the Morrinsville district when he was in his teens.
Clarke joined the Kereone Rugby Club in 1947. His height (5 feet 10½ inches) and his playing weight (which varied from 14 stone 3 pounds to 15 stone 5 pounds) saw him chosen as a prop forward. He played for the Waikato junior team in 1949 and made his provincial début for Waikato in 1951, and that year was a strong contributor to the team that won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time.
In 1953 Clarke was chosen for the All Black team that toured Britain and France. He played his first test against Wales, and from then on was a regular member of All Black test sides. He captained the team in three tests against Australia in 1955, playing at number eight. Clarke had ‘inexhaustible energy’ and the speed and ball-chasing skills of a loose forward; he kept himself fit with unusually hard training. A popular team member who was never seen in a sour or gloomy mood, he was widely known as ‘Chutney’.
1956 was a memorable year for New Zealand rugby and Ian Clarke played a memorable part in it. He was a member of the Waikato team that defeated South Africa 14–10 in the first match of their tour, and was the only New Zealand prop to play in all four tests of the series, won 3–1 by the All Blacks. Clarke later recalled that the intensity of the series meant that the team reacted to its historic win with relief rather than elation. His brother, Don, made his début in the same series, the pair becoming the first brothers to play in the same test for New Zealand for over 30 years. In 1961 all five Clarke brothers were to play for Waikato in a game against Thames Valley.
Clarke played in test series against Australia in 1957 and 1962, the British Lions in 1959 and France in 1961, and he toured South Africa with the All Blacks in 1960. He was on the tour of the British Isles and France in 1963–64, but played none of the tests. He was honoured by being chosen to play against the All Blacks for the Barbarians, and in his team’s 36–3 loss scored the only points by drop-kicking a 35-yard goal from a mark.
Clarke married Jeanette Eleanor Welch, a copywriter, at Morrinsville on 16 February 1963; they were to have no children. He retired as a rugby player in 1964, having played 252 first-class games, including 24 tests. His Morrinsville farm now occupied most of his time, but he later refereed rugby at first-class level. He also became involved in rugby administration: he served as junior and senior vice president of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union and as president in 1993, and sat on the union’s law, tours and judicial committees. Clarke saw it as essential that he visit as many provincial unions as possible, especially those small, struggling unions in the third division.
In the early 1970s Clarke sold his dairy farm and bought a small dry-stock property. Soon after, he became a meat buyer for the Auckland Farmers’ Freezing Company. A life member of the Waikato Rugby Union, he had long advocated playing test matches in Hamilton, and was present in 1997 when, in the first test allocated to the city, the All Blacks comprehensively defeated Argentina. The following day, on 29 June, he collapsed and died while feeding out stock. He was survived by his wife. The numbers attending his funeral overflowed both St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Morrinsville and its hall; 800 people heard tributes and eulogies to a much-respected rugby player and administrator.