Clark was on the fringes of the England team this time last year when he was hit with a 32-week ban for breaking the elbow of Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins in the LV= Cup final.
The suspension, one of the biggest handed down in England, ran from March until November last year and ruled Clark out of England’s summer tour and the autumn internationals.
Lancaster has monitored Clark’s discipline closely since his return to action for Northampton and yesterday recalled him to the England squad for the RBS Six Nations, confident he has the temperament and talent to thrive in Test rugby.
Clark is the son of former Scotland Under-21 internationalist David, from Duns in Berwickshire, and, having not yet played for England at senior level, is still qualified to play for the country of his father’s birth.
But now Lancaster has given him the opportunity to be in contention to make his debut against Scotland at Twickenham on 2 February. “I have coached him since he was 14 and I know him well enough to know that he is hugely regretful of the incident,” said Lancaster, who watched Clark develop through the Leeds academy. “When he went into the hearing he didn’t do anything other than put his hands up and say, ‘I made a bad mistake, I apologise’.
“He has never felt anything other than remorse. He has served his punishment, a 32-week ban. I was disappointed we ended up in the situation that he missed out on developing himself for club and country. Massively. But equally, as with other players in the past, I think everyone deserves a second chance – and certainly he does.
“I have watched his games closely and observed his behaviour to make sure he is on the right side of where he should be. He has a competitive nature but he is channelling that in the right way. I know what he can offer.”
Clark has replaced lock Mouritz Botha and will offer Lancaster options as both a combative back row and in the second row. “In addition to his desire to win, his versatility in the second row is an option for us. He is incredibly athletic and very good in the contact areas,” Lancaster said.
“He’s got to have the desire to play in the second row for him to be successful. I’ve checked that is the case and he’s happy.”
The Hawkins incident, when the Leicester hooker had his arm hyper-extended until his elbow broke, was described at the time by Leicester boss Richard Cockerill as “horrendous” and “one of the worst things I have seen on a rugby field”. If any bad blood existed between Clark and the Leicester players, Lancaster was confident it would dissipate when they all come together in camp with England at the end of the month.
“Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi had a bit of a do and I don’t see any problems between those two now,” Lancaster said. “Players tend to move on very quickly and they understand that playing for England is about working hard in harmony. I have never detected [problems] and I don’t expect I will this time.”
Lancaster backed Clark to make a similar impact during the Six Nations that England saw from the likes of Joe Launchbury, Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola in the autumn.
“What he’s got to do is make the step from a good player of potential to an international player,” Lancaster said.
Launchbury, Youngs, Vunipola and Freddie Burns have all been officially promoted into the senior squad, having been called up for the autumn Tests as injury cover. Burns has been joined by his club-mate Billy Twelvetrees, who will compete with Brad Barritt for the inside centre position, while Saracens wing David Strettle has replaced Charlie Sharples. James Haskell returns to England’s senior squad in place of Phil Dowson, who drops to the Saxons squad along with Sharples, Botha, Tom Palmer, Anthony Allen and Jordan Turner-Hall.
The Saxons squad includes converted rugby league stars Joel Tomkins, the Saracens centre, and Wasps wing Christian Wade. London Irish prop Alex Corbisiero (knee) and Saracens full-back Alex Goode (shoulder) are both in a race against time to be fit for the start of the Six Nations.