Just over a month on from playing a leading role in the British and Irish Lions’ victory over Australia, England prop Alex Corbisiero is settling in at Franklin’s Gardens for what, for him, is set to be arguably his biggest domestic season yet.
It was announced back in January that the loosehead would leave London Irish after almost five years at the club, and make the move north to join a squad that fell at the final hurdle in last year’s Aviva Premiership. Corbisiero this morning explained the rationale behind his decision to depart the Madejski Stadium.
“Obviously, they (Northampton) are a top four side consistently – last year they were just on the cusp of winning the Premiership. The main attraction there was to be playing in those play-off games at the end of the season and to be playing in the Heineken Cup.”
A more realistic chance to clinch silverware at club level was not the only factor in his decision, however.
“I think it’s a very good place to develop. They’ve got a very forward-orientated game plan under Dorian West, and I’m really looking forward to playing somewhere like that and continuing my development.”
The Lions star also cited his new teammates as a major reason for joining Saints, with several of his international colleagues also plying their trade at Franklin’s Gardens.
“There’s a good core group of young guys – a lot of guys I played for England with – and I’m looking forward to carrying on developing and building something at club and country level. I think that’s a very attractive thing to try and be a part of.”
Plainly, there is plenty to be excited about for Corbisiero – not to mention Saints and England fans – following a string of performances Down Under that won him some serious plaudits. Head coach Warren Gatland named the New York-born loosehead as his man of the match after the thumping third test victory – a game in which he played a major role in decimating the Australian set piece, and worked tirelessly in the loose, earning his first test try in the process.
It was a far cry from the situation in which the Englishman found himself at the beginning of 2013. A knee injury hampered his season with London Irish, and at international level forced him to miss the entire Six Nations. At the time, speculation over his career was rife in the media, in the wake of comments made by his then Director of Rugby Brian Smith. Smith’s comments are well documented elsewhere, but in short, they cast a shadow of doubt on Corbisiero’s future in the pro game. The coach labelled his knee “a mess”, and perhaps more worryingly, described the problem as “degenerative” – remarks that, back in January, understandably served to frustrate and rile the player. Today, the prop reflected on the words of his former D.O.R in a more pensive light, stating that they provided even greater drive to regain full fitness and find his best form.
“I don’t think there’s much you can say when someone says those things. I didn’t think they were necessary. Obviously, I didn’t enjoy them, and I didn’t feel they were accurate. At the time, all I could do was focus on getting healthy, getting back to rugby, playing well and reaching the form I knew I could reach.
“Things like that definitely motivate you. When people doubt you, your natural instinct is to prove them wrong, and I used comments like that to fire me on. Definitely, it was a factor in ensuring that I was very driven to finish the season on a high note.”
With the scrum coming under heavy fire from virtually all sides of late, last weekend’s Rugby Championship games offered the first high-profile glimpse at the IRB’s new engagement sequence, currently being trialled globally. With his own scrummaging proving so impressive on tour, amidst a storm of controversy over varying refereeing interpretations of the set-piece laws, it is unsurprising that Corbisiero views the officials as being integral to the success of process.
“The main area I’m interested to see is how (the scrum) is refereed. That’s the key. On paper, it seems pretty clear for the players what we need to do and what we don’t need to do. It’s the referees’ interpretation and how they are going to referee it which will be interesting to see.”
Although by virtue of his extended recovery break following the Lions tour the prop has only had two sessions working with the new protocols, he feels that they will aid in the IRB’s efforts to block the frustrating recurrence of collapsing and reset scrums.
“It definitely looks like it’s going to help stop collapsed scrums. The way I felt the laws worked previously were that if both teams wanted to scrum, there were not very many collapsed scrums anyway.”
This, in particular, alludes to the new regulations’ capacity to prevent packs “shirking the hit”, or “bailing out” in the words of Graham Rowntree, if the initial contact at the scrum is unfavourable for their side.
“I think (the new protocols) take that option to go straight to ground out of it. It’s not dramatically different; like Graham Rowntree said, it’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s just figuring out how it’s going to be refereed and tweaking the detail in your drills to make sure you are just perfecting your approach.”
Corbisiero also gave his thoughts on the IRB’s controversial trial regulations brought in to combat concussion and player welfare with regards to head knocks. The PCSA (Pitch Side Assessment), introduced on a trial basis earlier this year, provides five minutes of dedicated time off the field for a member of a squad’s medical team to subject a potentially concussed player to a number of tests, examining areas such as balance, cognition and memory. There has been much debate raised over both its effectiveness and implementation at the highest level, with the incident in the Lions’ third test involving George Smith bringing the issue to the fore.
“If it’s done properly, and the decision is made to actively look out for the best welfare of the player, then it’s very good. I think concussion is a very serious issue, and I think it’s something that needs to be addressed in the sport.
“Putting the decision into the doctors’ hands is the right way to go. A player, regardless of how he feels, is always going to tell you he’s alright – he wants to get back on that pitch. I think it’s up to doctors to look out for our best interests. Overall, I think it’s a positive step. Concussion is no joke.”
When questioned on England’s aspirations for the coming season, including autumn tests against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand, Corbisiero set his sights bullishly high.
“We want to continue to show that we are improving and that we want to win games. We have got a tough autumn series – I think we have got to be coming out of that with three wins from three, and then aim towards winning the Six Nations.
“We have come runners-up two years in a row to a good Wales side, but we’re on the upward curve. Our benchmark should be to win the Six Nations, win those three games and keep maturing and developing as a side. We’ve definitely got the all tools and the right conditions to do that, as long as we keep continuing to get our heads down and work hard.”
Big statements indeed, but put forward with the forceful, confident eloquence of a man currently enjoying unprecedented success in the sport. England have shown signs of beginning to come of age as a test match side, and with the added experience the likes of Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and Geoff Parling have gained from featuring prominently on Lions duty, they appear better-placed this year than they have done for some time to fulfil those goals. The loosehead, despite having been a long-serving member of the London Irish squad, is still a week or so short of his twenty-fifth birthday, and several years away from the period generally regarded as the time where props are at the peak of their powers. It’s been one heck of a summer for Corbisiero, but in reality, the adventure may only just be beginning.
BMW Performance Team members Alex Corbisiero and George North were taking part in the BMW #UltimateChallenge. For news on the next Ultimate rugby experience follow @BMWRugby
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images