Rugby Union: Perry gets a kick out of adversity

Chris Hewett on the recalled England rookie out to make himself undroppable
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MATT PERRY may be a mere rugby player, and a 21-year-old rookie of a rugby player at that, but he continues to reveal depths of patience and self-discipline that would make Buddha look like Paul Gascoigne. If he ever feels the need to write a book, he should steer clear of "Matt Perry: Life at the back" and go for one of those American-style pop psychology manuals. "How to make a million from adversity" sounds about right.

Consider these most recent developments in the Bath full-back's fledgling top-flight career. Having emerged from the pre-Christmas SANZA series as Clive Woodward's find of the season, an ice-cold trickle of negativity chilled his veins as he watched his club-mate, Mike Catt, miss a hatful of goal-kicks during a Tetley's Bitter Cup tie with Richmond in mid-January. Perry knew well before the final whistle that his place in Bath's Heineken Cup final side was in jeopardy, albeit through no fault of his own.

Sure enough, Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, gently informed him the following Tuesday that Jon Callard had been recalled simply to put the ball between the sticks and that as a result, he would be watching the climactic match with Brive in Bordeaux from the bench.

It was Perry's 21st birthday and even though he had read the runes correctly, the confirmation left him in an "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to" frame of mind.

The frustration multiplied when Woodward then decided Catt should wear England's No 15 shirt in Paris a week later, a setback Perry had very definitely not seen coming. He has since played one club game against Gloucester in the centre and been overlooked for another with Wasps, so when Woodward recalled him for this weekend's Five Nations encounter with Wales at Twickenham, the youngster greeted the news with a delight tempered by first-hand experience of the capriciousness of life in the sporting fast lane.

"I look at it this way," he says, revealing once again a level-headedness worthy of Isaiah Berlin. "To have gone through all these highs and lows at 21 can only make me a better player and a stronger person, because you quickly understand that the only useful reaction to disappointments like Bordeaux and Paris is to look again at your own game, identify the areas that have left you exposed and then work to put them right.

"To miss out on the Heineken final was bitterly disappointing, even though I understood the reasoning behind the selection. The England thing was slightly different in as much as I didn't think I'd done anything to warrant being dropped. But those decisions are in the hands of others, so you can't get too twisted about it. You have to go the positive route.

"People say I was dropped from the Bath side because of problems elsewhere and in a sense that's true. But if I'd been a goal-kicker of JC's stature, the situation wouldn't have arisen, would it? That's why I'm concentrating so hard on developing my own kicking skills. JC is the best kicker in the country at the moment and if I can put myself in a position to do a similar job for Bath - to honestly say `Yes, I'm a genuine goal-kicking full-back' - then the next time I get dropped, it will be all my own fault."

To that end, he has put himself in the hands of Dave Alred, a specialist coach renowned throughout the rugby world as the top man in his field. "We're together for three sessions every week and I can feel it coming on," says Perry. "I've identified the start of next season as the point at which I'll ask for goal-kicking duties. You can't rush these things because confidence is a big, big factor in this area. But by the middle of August, I'll be looking to pop a few over at first-team level."

Alred, who made record-breaking kickers of Jon Webb and Rob Andrew before guiding Neil Jenkins to his Lions heroics last summer, does not doubt for a moment his new charge's potential as a world-class marksman. "Matt will get there, definitely. Why? Because he's a worker. He puts the time in, he sweats at it, he listens and he learns. To be perfectly honest with you, I can't think of another player of his age with such a professional outlook. He's completely committed and totally honest with himself."

Not that Perry is a cold fish, incapable of relishing the delicious pangs of anticipation during the build-up to a big international occasion. "This Wales game is giving me one hell of a buzz," he says. "In fact, I'd put it right up there with my first cap against Australia last November. Maybe it's because of the disappointments I've suffered recently, but it's like a first Test all over again.

"When you look at it, I haven't played much big rugby over the last few weeks. I can't tell you how hungry I am for this one. Experienced internationals told me that once I'd played at the top level, I'd want more and more of it. The last three or four weeks have shown me how right they were."