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How Corbisiero became top of the props

TOBY BOOTH and his coaching staff are working the players hard. They’re on a five-match losing streak so there’s a bite and thrust to today’s London Irish training session.

Sunbury is glowing in the spring sun but the players have work to do before they can split up for the afternoon and head home to enjoy the weather.

I’m here to speak to Alex Corbisiero but I can’t quite pick him out on the field. At 6’2” and 19 stone, he shouldn’t be too hard to find.

After a stellar Six Nations campaign with England, the loss to Leicester a couple of days earlier was Corbisiero’s first game for London Irish since January 22.

The Surrey native, who was born in New York to parents of Italian and Irish extraction, has been given some extra time to recover from a taxing few weeks of high-intensity rugby.

But Corbisiero is here for some recovery work and he eventually emerges, squinting into the bright light, from the tunnel under the Eddie Lawlor Stand.

Doing the interview pitchside in the 20-plus degree heat suits me fine, but Corbisiero leads the way up to the shade at the back of the stand.

“I’m not really a fan of the sun,” he says. Perhaps there’s more Irish in him than Italian.

It was little over a year ago, in early 2011, that Corbisiero was just another youngster in the London Irish squad looking to make a name for himself.

He had represented England Saxons and was in his third season with the Exiles’ first-team squad, but few outside the Premiership knew anything about the young English prop with the Italian surname.

“It still seems a bit surreal sometimes the way it’s all happened over the last year,” he says. “Going from no caps to 15 caps, starting regularly in the Six Nations, playing in a World Cup; it’s been a very positive year for me and a lot has happened that does make you look back and have to pinch yourself.

“But it’s important to me to keep improving and progressing further, because there’s tonnes of competition with other guys trying to get in ahead of you. You can’t stand still for a minute or you’ll sink. You’ve got to keep moving forward.”

That’s exactly what Corbisiero and his colleagues in the England pack did for 80 minutes at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day. Ireland were in reverse at every scrum, utterly dismantled, particularly after the withdrawal of Mike Ross.

The Leinster tight-head was injured early in the game and made way for Tom Court in the 36th minute. Scrumming down opposite Corbisiero that evening isn’t an experience Court will tell the grandchildren about.

The Irish scrum crumbled after Ross’ exit but Corbisiero maintains that England were already on top at the set-piece by that point.

“I was enjoying playing against Ross, especially after last year when we had quite a hard time over there,” he says. “It was quite satisfying to be getting on top.

“When Mike Ross went off we kept putting the pressure on. We weren’t focusing on Tom Court or anyone else. We just kept going as we had been. I felt we were on top from the start but it just got stronger and stronger throughout the game.

“With Tom Court there we definitely did it to even greater effect, but I did feel we were certainly showing dominance from the first scrum. I also never think it’s fair to blame one person because a scrum is an eight-man thing.”

As the second-half progressed during that 30-9 defeat for Ireland, the English scrum grew more dominant and Irish supporters at Twickenham began to squirm at the sight of the eight men in green constantly being driven backwards. The home fans couldn’t get enough of it.

Corbisiero says: “The scrum was a real deciding factor on the day. In a scrum, if you have everyone in the pack on the same page working hard to get it all right, it’s very hard to stop. That’s what we were able to achieve.

“It was a big psychological boost to us. It lifts everyone, the forwards and the backs. It took its toll on Ireland as well because you could see them getting a bit more demoralised and down each time.”

The scrum has become a sensitive issue in Irish rugby. We’re not producing top-quality props and it’s costing us, both at international and provincial level. Ireland is finally waking up to the reality that three bulky lads doesn’t quite equate to an effective front-row. We have no shortage of bulky lads in Ireland but good Irish props are scarce.

There’s more to scrummaging than eight men shoving an opposing eight backwards, says Corbisiero.

“Different teams scrummage in different ways but you have to get the basic fundamentals right consistently. You have to do it right technically when you’re fatigued and it’s getting repetitive, because it’s as much mental as it is physical.

“That’s your basic checklist, but the main thing is to be switched on at every scrum. Attention to detail is key.”

Corbisiero has had plenty of time to work on his approach to the scrum. He began playing rugby at school in Wimbledon at the age of five, less than a year after his family had moved to England from New York, and he’s been a prop from the start.

“My body-type was probably always suited to being a prop so I got stuck in there straight away and always enjoyed it.”

Prior to his England Saxons debut against Russia in the Churchill Cup in 2010, Corbisiero received word that Ireland were keen to coax him into a green jersey.

Corbisiero’s mother was born in England but to parents from Dublin. Declan Kidney knew of the Irish connection and the Ireland boss got in touch with Bob Casey at London Irish to pass on the message.

He was flattered by the approach, but Corbisiero wasn’t interested in pursuing it.

“Since I started playing rugby, representing England was what I had always wanted,” says Corbisiero, who made his senior England debut against Italy in last year’s Six Nations.

“Playing for England at Twickenham is a very special experience and I was really proud to play there again against Ireland a couple of weeks ago.

“I won’t tear, but you do feel the emotion building up inside you and you’re very aware of it, especially when you’re singing the anthem in front of a crowd like that.”

***

Away from rugby, Corbisiero can often be found watching mixed martial arts or dabbling in some hip-hop — check out his England ‘initiation rap’ on YouTube.

“It’s just a bit of banter with the boys, it’s not something I do seriously.”

However, his main focus away from the game is a BA degree in history. He’s been studying part-time for it at the University of London Birkbeck College for the past two years and has one more to go.

But the degree isn’t just a safety net for life post-rugby. He says: “It’s something I do have a lot of interest in so mainly it’s to keep myself busy and mentally stimulated, but it’s also something to have for the future. It’ll be important to have when I finish playing.”

The transition from professional sportsman to civilian is not uppermost in Corbisiero’s mind. He is, after all, far closer to the beginning than the end of his career.

He turned 20 a week before making his London Irish debut against Wasps in 2008 and, 72 appearances later, he’s one of the club’s marquee men.

They were narrow runners-up to Leicester Tigers in the Premiership at the end of his first season; Corbisiero was introduced as a replacement in that 10-9 final defeat at Twickenham.

Now 23, he stresses that their ambition for the remainder of this season is to secure Heineken Cup rugby for 2012/13, but they may have left that challenge too late.

Corbisiero refers several times to rebuilding for next season, which is clearly the priority for the club following the recent addition of Brian Smith to the coaching staff.

There have been some promising signings too, among them Scottish international hooker Scott Lawson, England Saxons lock George Skivington and 24-times capped Ireland scrum-half Tomás O’Leary.

The Munster man has struggled over the last 18 months, but Corbisiero believes London Irish can help O’Leary rediscover the form that earned him a Lions call-up in 2009.

“Everyone here, the coaches and the players, will be looking to get the best out of him, to have the best Tomás O’Leary playing every week. That’s what I’m expecting to happen.

“We’ve got good scrum-halves here already but he’ll really strengthen us. To have a player of that calibre coming in is really exciting for the club.

“We’ve got a very competitive squad already as it is, but bringing in an experienced international, who’s been picked for the Lions, a Heineken Cup and Celtic League winner, the list goes on — it’s going to be nothing but a massive addition for us.”

It was 2005 when Alex Corbisiero first joined the academy at London Irish and next season will be his fifth as a first-teamer. His contract has a year left to run and he’ll have plenty of interest from elsewhere.

He’ll decide on where his future lies when the time comes, but there’s no disguising his desire to ensure that his best days in a London Irish shirt are still to come.

“This is the club I’ve always been at and I’m still very happy here. I’ve got another year on my contract and we’ll go from there, but I really enjoy it at London Irish.

“I want to hopefully grow more in a leadership role in the squad. The club means a lot to me, I’m very grateful for what they’ve done for me and I really want to play a part in bringing success to the club.”

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