Rugby Union: Perry back in position with high expectations

England's young full-back set for tough examination by Ireland. By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
IT RAINED like never before - a torrent, a deluge, a monsoon, damn it - and from first minute to last, the green-shirted half-backs sent steepling kicks high into the morass of low cloud rolling in from the coast. As each ball plummeted from the stratosphere into the English 22, the midfield vultures and back-row hyenas gathered to pick over the carcass of their prey, a frail figure clad in blood-smeared white. And time and again, the Springbok scavengers retreated with their bellies empty and their hunger still raging. Matthew Perry, 12 stones dripping wet and as shy as a mouse, was having none of it.

Had it not been for the dark slab of Table Mountain looming a mile or two to the north of Cape Town's forbidding Newlands amphitheatre, England's unassuming young full-back might easily have been in Dublin on an old- fashioned Five Nations afternoon. As he will be today, indeed, his international career on track once again after a two-match interruption. The Irish will, of course, trot out their traditional "welcome to Lansdowne Road and how's that for starters?" routine - stick it up in the ether and we'll see what he's made of - but Perry will barely bat an eyelid. When you have seen the Boks at uncomfortably close quarters, you have pretty much seen it all.

"An interesting afternoon out, that one at Newlands," he agreed this week, recalling last summer's labours south of the equator. "It was a kitchen sink job, that's for sure. The conditions were end-of-the-worldish and while the Boks had most of the ball, there was not much they could do except hang it high and wait for the rebounds. In those circumstances, it is all down to the full-back. You can't shirk your responsibilities and, hopefully, I stood up to be counted. I didn't kick as well as I would have liked that day - I missed a couple of touches and got a few looks from the pack - and no one ever feels great when they lose a Test match. But in purely personal terms, I look back on that game as a big experience."

Clive Woodward, the England coach, unhesitatingly applied the "world class" tag to Perry's performance, going so far as to add that he now considered the 21-year-old Bath rookie a senior England player. Sure enough, his was among the first names on the team sheet as last autumn's international programme kicked off, but after creating the only try of a bitterly frustrating Cook Cup encounter with the Wallabies at Twickenham in November, Perry was belatedly diagnosed as suffering from concussion and immediately ruled out of the return fixture with the South Africans. Enter a major threat to his future, in the shape of Northampton's Nick Beal.

It was, Perry freely admits, a severe disappointment, a hollow moment in a career already pock-marked by sudden, unforeseen setbacks. "When you go through a summer tour like last year's - let's be honest, it was an extremely difficult few weeks - it hurts when you miss out on a big occasion at Twickenham. After all the stick the Springboks dished out in Cape Town, I'd have loved the satisfaction of beating them in London, especially as we denied them the world record they were chasing. Still, I know enough about Test rugby now to realise that no one gets it all their own way."

The same goes for rugby at club level, too, as Perry has discovered to his cost. Last season, he lost his place in Bath's European Cup final- winning team, not because of any loss of form on his part but because Mike Catt's goal-kicking radar was so chronically unreliable that the West Countrymen felt they had no option but to drag dear old Jon Callard away from his pipe and slippers. A week later, Woodward picked Catt ahead of Perry for the Five Nations opener in Paris - a decision the coach regretted almost as soon as he had committed himself to it.

Those lacerating twists of fortune, bracketed together with the travails and torments of the summer tour and some serious physical and mental fatigue - he played 14 Tests in as many months, which was as many as Don Rutherford, Alastair Hignell and Simon Hodgkinson managed in their careers as England full-backs - go a long way towards explaining the temporary drift of club form that affected Perry either side of Christmas. He endured a particularly rough afternoon at Newcastle, where Jonny Wilkinson ruthlessly exposed his low levels of confidence, and when Bath started to play him at outside- half, his critics wondered whether a brilliant international future might already be behind him.

In actual fact, the shift to No 10 has been a crucial factor in his swift rehabilitation. "Confidence is such a big factor in sport at this level and when things aren't going particularly well, either personally or in the team context, it tends to drag you down. I found games were passing me by somehow, that I wasn't getting involved nearly enough. It wasn't for the want of trying - as far as I could see, I was playing my usual game - but when you're a little low, things don't happen for you.

"For that reason, I was delighted to get a few runs at outside-half. You're automatically involved there; you get your hands on the ball, you call the shots, you make things happen. It was incredibly refreshing to get out there and control a game. I played most of my school rugby at stand-off, so I knew my way around the position, and I'd been putting in so much work on my kicking anyway that there was no real problem finding my feet again. It's been therapeutic, definitely. I feel right on top of things again."

Perry makes less noise than most about his rugby; he is almost painfully modest, despite having so little to be modest about. He is, however, a driven professional, a fanatically committed worker who has set himself the ultimate goal of "completeness", as he likes to put it. "I work three days a week on my kicking because I want to be able to kick goals at the very highest level," he says. "I also want to feel comfortable in any position Bath or England might choose to play me.

"Versatility is central to the modern game, in my view. The days of centres, wings, full-backs and outside-halves all doing their own specialist thing in their own little world have long gone. You have to be able to do it all now - run, tackle, pass, catch, kick, protect the ball - and you have to do it well, too. There is absolutely no point a back carrying the ball into contact if he cannot recycle it like a flanker."

For all that, Woodward and the rest of the red rose hierarchy will be happy if their last line of defence restricts himself to a faultless demonstration of the full-back's art this afternoon. As Marcus Rose, one of his predecessors in the No 15 shirt, once said on the eve of a Five Nations shindig in Dublin: "This is DFA territory," an abbreviation that stood for "Don't fool around" or something very similar. Reassuringly for England, Matt Perry is nobody's fool.